The 'Other Guys': Monkey Climber's Gio Vanhooren
We meet the man behind Monkey Climber...
Let’s start with a brief rundown on your background; what were you doing before Monkey Climber?
“I was fishing… well that’s the first thing that comes to mind! I just mean that I had more time to go fishing back then. Before we started Monkey Climber, I spent up to six weeks each year abroad, on public French lakes. That all changed with the birth of the magazine and for the next three years, I didn’t get to France.
“Before Monkey Climber, I worked for a couple of advertising agencies as a copywriter - I have university degrees as a translator and a journalist. I was doing silly hours… 80 or more a week for just €1,200 or so, because you had to prove yourself. They charged my work out to clients at €110 an hour!
“Around 2008 I saw an advertisement for a position with the Flanders Angling Trust. They were looking for an editor-in-chief for their bimonthly magazine. I wrote to them and got an interview straight away - it seemed they were properly desperate! I soon had the board of directors convinced, but they told me that they couldn’t pay me full-time for my degrees. They could, they said, pay me for a 30hr week, with the work being done in three or four days for €1,450 - needless to say, it was an easy decision on my part!”
For those readers who aren’t aware, can you give them a brief overview of MC, what it stands for, how often it’s published, where it’s distributed and what it costs?
“Monkey Climber is published in Flemish and Dutch (the languages are closely related) and we publish two issues each year: in the summer and winter. It’s distributed mainly in the Benelux Union on a subscription basis and via tackle shops. We have quite a few German subscribers too - mainly anglers living close to our border and who understand our language. We even have a few young German and Austrian subscribers that are studying Dutch, just so that they can read and understand our publication… how cool is that? Then of course, there are a lot of British, European and even American collectors who also subscribe.
“A subscription costs only €15,99, which is really too low for us, given the high-quality paper and Indie print. When we started the magazine originally, we didn’t have a business plan and we just looked at the selling prices of other Benelux publications. The cost of those varied between €8 and €9.
“It might also be of interest to readers to know how we got started - which was more by chance than anything. In 2010 I met my partner, Eve, when I revisited one of the agencies I’d worked for previously. She later sent me a Facebook message, asking whether I’d like to go out for a drink. I however, had plans in place to fish in France for the next 14 days. I waited a few days before replying, ‘Maybe, but first I’m off fishing… sorry!’
“Eventually though, we got to meet a few times in August of that year and something, as they say, clicked. We chatted about all kinds of stuff: friends, music, architecture, culture… and were soon talking about hobbies and interests. She’s a designer with a skating and surfing background and out of the blue, she asked why I’d never started my own fishing magazine. I explained that I had considered it, and I recalled Alijn Danau’s designer, Geert Vandeplancke, and Belgian legend, Luc De Baets in particular, trying to twist my arm, but the costs were simply too high, especially given that we’d have had to pay a designer, run good quality paper etc.
“She then asked what I might call my magazine and I told her that I’d definitely avoid any title with the word ‘carp’ in it (sorry CARPology!) , as most, if not all publications of the kind do. I just came up with Monkey Climber… it reminded me of my early days of fishing for carp. Around the age of 12 or 13, I’d be fishing with a feeder, concentrating on my swing tip, but with two carp rods to the side of me. I had these bright orange monkey climbers and bite alarms.
“On my birthday six months later, Eve gave me a mock-up of the perceived magazine, with me on the cover! From there - and as I’ve said, without a proper business plan or anything - we just started working on a first issue. Here we are, eight years and sixteen issues later, still going strong! If Eve had known back then what she was starting, she’d have probably bought me an ordinary present!”
That’s amazing. Has the vision for what MC was going to be changed much over the years?
“At first, we conceived it as a general specimen, or specialist magazine, with 65 percent carp content and the rest given over to other species. We soon found though, that the non-carp specimen scene was just too small, and carp anglers would comment that there wasn’t enough carp content.
“Entering what was already a crowded market with a new magazine, we found, wasn’t easy and we struggled to even get the support of the big brands. It really was difficult getting that first issue shifted. We even gave away a good number of boxes of the magazines at a VBK (Imperial Fishing Europe) meeting, just so people would get to see it, feel it, read it and familiarise themselves with it. I wish we’d not done so, as we now see copies of our first issues go for up to £185 (to an avid subscriber). This is a silly amount for something that’s really, not that old and that originally cost under a tenner, but we understand and appreciate the sentiment.
“We weren’t given a year, and to be perfectly honest, we seriously considered pulling the plug after that very first issue. We had though, a large number of subscribers that had paid for two issues, so we produced another, featuring just carp - the one with the iconic, portrait shot in black and white of Alijn. From that issue things really took off.
“Our vision hasn’t changed over the years and if anything, it’s even clearer now. I’m a man of principle - in every aspect of life - so with the magazine we wanted to bring some real stories back, and some proper fishing if you like. Most of the magazines over here at the time, I felt, focussed only on commercials, with little or no journalism as such. As I had a background in the latter and really liked interviewing people and hearing genuine stories, it was a match made in heaven, so to speak. It’s always been my fondest desire that we give our readers ideas and values, just as I had in my early teens when reading those early VBK magazines.”
You’re now, as you say, 16 issues in; do you have a favourite issue… maybe for its content or design, or for it being a particularly happy time in your life?
“Every issue is quite special really. If I had to pick one, it would be the one I’ve just mentioned, featuring the image of Alijn Danau. That cover for me, sent a shockwave through the carp world internationally.
“The twelfth issue, with Alan Blair and his camo cream (think of Apocalypse Now and that iconic shot of Martin Sheen)… that’s definitely a favourite of mine. I’d had the idea in my mind for quite a while and who else, other than Alan, would be mad enough to agree to try it?
“Content-wise I always try to improve with each issue and from what we hear from our readers, we’re still doing very well.”
Mainstream print publishing has taken a real battering over the last few years; being a small, independent publisher, have you been affected at all?
“Not really. We’ve lost only two advertisers who chose to move on to digital publishing. The remainder have stayed loyal to us; they just know our magazine has a massive readership over here.
“One of the main reasons I believe that we’re not suffering or struggling is that we produce just two issues each year. This was difficult for people to get their heads around at first. In these ‘instant’ social media times, two magazines a year is just perfect for us though, and it gives us time to work really hard on them. We wouldn’t be able to even consider a monthly distribution like you guys - respect! Just to give you an example, if we’re doing a main interview, it’ll often involve travel abroad. I like to do them ‘live’, rather than just mailing questions and receiving some well-trimmed answers. Typing an interview out properly can take up a full week for me - I like doing them a segment at a time, considering everything carefully, laying links here and there, whilst also including some puns and adding humour. (The longest interview we did was 17 pages - in Word, not print!)
“After I’ve finished typing it all out, Eve starts working on the design. If it’s an old-school guy, we might have to scan a couple of hundred slides (we recently did the whole, unpublished Bruce Ashby archive of over 1,500 images!). In the end, a good interview can take up a month’s work, and then there’s all the other stuff… emails, social media, merchandise orders and other jobs (although I’m on a two-year sabbatical from my main job right now). There are just the two of us doing all this, with the welcome help of a few friends and family members.”
Your covers are quite different to most, if not all other magazines’ - I don’t think I’ve seen a single headline on one! What are your thoughts and ideas behind this concept?
“Thanks… as a fellow publisher I really appreciate that you’ve noticed! We tried it discreetly in our second year (although ‘One Night in Paris’ might not have been so discreet!), but Eve hated it. She’s not one for in-your-face, blatant, ‘screaming at you’ stuff. In the end, she’s the boss of MC, so our cover is indeed, a strong part of our game. It’s something that’s developed over the years perhaps, with us both coming from agency backgrounds, and having concepts the mood boards always in our minds. A lot of covers though, just happened.
“For our third issue, we had something planned with Oli Davies shooting Gaz Fareham, with an illustrator’s drawing over it, but it just didn’t work. We had two weeks left before print day and Gaz and Meeky came over for a late autumnal, near-winter social. One particular night we’d all had a few nice fish and come the morning, Meeky did some shots for Gaz. Neither were paying attention and I took this one sneaky portrait shot of Gaz who was holding the fish up, Guitar-Hero style and with a proper grin. One click… bam! That made the cover!
“Craig Stannard helped us massively for a mega, Jack Hilton Quest for Carp-style cover for the fifth issue too. The only problem with these concept covers is that people continue to expect more and more. I was particularly happy with the old-school cover of our latest issue, number 16. It’s a never-published-before image of an ‘underground’ angler holding a carp against a wall on a canal over here - the Sticky boys are fishing these on a regular basis these days. The shot shows so much detail: there’s a homemade mat that looks like an egg box, white trainers and funny camo gear and bucket hat, along with the captor’s special ‘grin’ (he looks more melancholy than happy!). Belgian big carp ace, Mark Pansar told me he found this cover the best so far… as the French say, ‘Des gouts et des couleurs on ne discute pas,’ (‘tastes and colours we do not discuss’).”
It’s Okay Not To Pay…
Would it be fair to say that the merchandise side of the business is perhaps, bigger than the publishing side nowadays? Was that ever the plan when you set out, and is fashion/brand creation something that really interests you?
“As with the magazine, the expansion of the merchandise was never planned. We made some items of clothing for ourselves and friends, just for shows, but soon other people were asking for them.
“I remember our real first big ‘merch’ order was €500 and I doubted whether we’d get that back - which is laughable looking back now. We were also lucky that a lot of friends, like Geert Ooms and Alan Blair advertised it at an early stage. The merch inspiration mainly comes from the hardcore/punk scene I grew up in really - I like a band shirt or two, or collectors’ shirts. I always compare Monkey Climber to any indie band: probably not making a lot of money from their music, but their merch side goes really well perhaps.”
There have been whispers of a UK version of MC for a number of years now; are we getting close, and what can we expect?
“I’ve been saying that for years… I even left my job last year to focus more on some sort of ‘best of’ in English. Before I took the sabbatical, I had 70 percent of it ready for Eve to work on, and that’s where we are still at the moment. There just aren’t enough hours in a day sadly, but it’ll come, I promise! It would be a dream come true certainly, as I grew up fishing for carp in the mid-nineties, when everything you needed in Belgium, came from the UK - if you had the right connections that is! We’ve returned the compliment perhaps with the merch, and it would be really nice to produce an English version, as a lot of anglers all over Europe would then be able to read it, and not just those in the UK.”
Tell us about MC’s ‘Tattoo Crazy’! Can you remember who had the first one and what the current count is?
“The current count is 187 - the police code for a dead cop in the States, I’m led to believe. It’s unbelievable really. I honestly don’t know how it got so crazy, because all the first people to get one weren’t among my close circle of friends. The first was a Belgian guy I knew from Facebook, and he still wears it with pride - although he gave up carp fishing recently. In the end, I had to get one myself, everyone said. My first tattoo ever is on the inside of my lower lip and it reads ‘MC’ with the graphics of a fish. My second is our popular ‘Keepers of the Faith’ design - I drew this myself long before we did the shirt. I do wonder where it will ever stop… we never could get our heads around the whole Tattoo Crazy thing - shout out to Yves D as well, who has both sleeves detailing nearly every design we’ve ever conceived!”
Talking of ‘fan love’, what’s the craziest or oddest thing a reader or fan has ever done?
“It’s a shame the above-mentioned comparison with bands ends there and that there aren’t MC groupies! (Hopefully Eve won’t read this, obviously!) I’ve had a stalker or two… for real, and it’s a little scary really. I’ll always remember when Loki was born, our friend, Sam Gomersall sent him a Daiwa GS600. On the same day, another friend, Smudge - an English guy living in Holland - sent us a set of mini, old-school Solar monkey climbers in baby blue! More recently we had our English friends, Steven and Ayesha over and they gave us another gift for Loki: a personalised Scope Snide baring an MC logo and his name. He’s not three years old, yet he’s already fully equipped!
“The funniest fan experience involved our former show helper, Dave, who started carping after we’d been going a couple of years. He asked me on one occasion, how I got so many nice pictures of fish with their dorsal fins erect. I said to him, ‘Watch my hands… how many fingers can you count?’
“A couple of months later he came back to me saying, ‘That fourth finger trick doesn’t work at all!’”
Ha, ha! Finally, what are the future plans for you and MC? Do you still get that same buzz you had when you first founded the magazine back in 2010, and when you saw the first issue roll off the printing press in 2011? As times change, can you see yourself moving more into digital content creation, or will the love for a printed product always remain?
“Our lives have changed a lot recently. For 35 years almost, I was always able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. I’d often work long into the night, but that’s no longer possible with a beautiful young child around. There’s more routine in our lives now, something I really hate - I’m a dreamer, remember. I still get the publishing buzz though, totally. I get that particularly when I’ve just signed off another issue, and I’m always buzzing with new ideas.
“As long as it doesn’t feel like repetition, I can see us publishing many more issues over the forthcoming years. At this moment in time, a digital magazine isn’t on the cards. We have though, recently started filming a big, historical documentary about Belgian carp. This will be shown next year, or at Zwolle 2021 at the latest, and will include subtitles in English. We’ve teamed up with the talented Hugo Van Gelder of Blackwater Films for this venture and again, the buzz is real!”