Take a look at the covers of the dozens and dozens of motorcycle magazines out there - from Cycle World to Dirt Rider – and you’ll see…well, motorcycles…and often enough, scantily clad women posing beside them. Take a look at the most recent issue of Manchester’s indie motorcycle magazine Iron & Air – and you won’t see either.
As Digital Editor Greg Moore pounds away at the office drum kit in the old mill building, Iron & Air’s Publisher, Brett Houle, strums the air, says he wishes he brought his guitar - and then tells the story of how the magazine started - with a simple stream of images posted on his Instagram account. “Old bikes, parts,” Houle says, “I mean the lines and shapes and colors and designs and grit and patina of all these old bikes were just beautiful to me.”
Houle wasn’t social media savvy – this was 2011 - he just loved posting images of old motorcycles. “And then before you know it people just started to follow it you know and from there I had no clue what it would become,” he recalls. “And then I met Adam actually on Instagram.”
Adam Fitzgerald, now the magazine’s Editor in Chief, was doing design work at a local college and rebuilding an old motorcycle in his downtime. “And so I'd been posting pictures of it on my personal Instagram account and noticed that he had an account that was posting similar photos,” Fitzgerald says, “and a couple months later we realized we lived a mile away from each other.”
“And Adam and I kind of said ‘Hey is there like this publication that captures what we're seeing and doing right now?’ Houle adds. “And we looked around and couldn't find it. And I said ‘Well what if we created it?’”
The first issue of Iron & Air was posted online only and cost $5. “I mean we were all huddled around the computer,” Houle says, “and you know we had built up a pretty big social media audience and then we turned the thing on and we announced it we're like, ‘Is anybody gonna buy this thing?’”
To their astonishment, orders started to trickle in from around the world. After posting three issues online, Houle and Fitzgerald decided to create a limited edition print version.
“Everyone told us not to,” Fitzgerald says.
“Yeah it was 2012,” Houle says, “like why would you launch a print magazine dummies?”
But the dummies did. Subscriptions poured in. Four years later, Adam Fitzgerald says, the quarterly magazine ships nearly 15,000 copies to over 140 countries.
The most recent issue, number 23, features an illustrated portrait of actor Norman Reedus – no motorcycles in sight - on its rubbery scuff-proof cover. “Everyone always rubs it when they first pick up the publication,” Fitzgerald says.
Inside, the pages are heavy, matted, muted - inspired, Fitzgerald says, by the paper in old motorcycle manuals. The point being, Fitzgerald says, that, “You could look at it 20 years from now and it would still hold the same value.”
The Motorcycle and the Places It Takes Us is the magazine’s theme. The motorcycle, a typical Iron & Air story proposes, isn’t just a fun way to travel - but a tool of fulfillment, self-realization.
“It's more aspirational and inspirational I think and that's its purpose I think it's designed to be an experience,” says Houle, “I think Issue 22 is like kind of like an interesting look at what Iron & Air is. Issue 22 is the first issue that we concepted, created, produced, put together entirely ourselves.”
Usually the four man team makes use of freelance writers and photographers from around the world. But with Issue 22, they wanted to shake the magazine – and themselves – up.
“We went on a motorcycle trip,” Houle says. “We decided to get the hell out of the office and we circled all four cowboy states last summer. Thirty seven days, 10,000 miles on really challenging motorcycles. And I think that just captured for me the idea behind Iron & Air, the travel, the adventure, the exploration, the people, the growth, the storytelling. The seeking. I mean it just - that's it for me.”
The result - a 140 page chronicle of their journey.
Houle reads from his introduction, “It started in a small diner with a late 20 something single mom who brought an energy to her small town life that I completely fell for. She owned a mule, had just bought herself a 74 Yamaha Enduro and she bragged wholeheartedly about her town, her work, and her son. We cleaned our plates and finished our coffee quietly and got back on the road. In the solitude of my helmet I fantasized about selling off my belongings, packing my bags, finding simple work, and living out my days with her. Her mule, her son, and her disposition. I asked myself what makes a life?”
There are motorcycles in there somewhere - and in almost every article in the magazine - but mostly there’s that lingering question. What makes a life? How do you find it? You could meditate, do Yoga, have a garden. Or maybe, like Brett Houle, Adam Fitzgerald and Greg Moore - you can hop on your motorcycle and see what you become.