The influence of Martin Tielli  runs through much of Canadian popular culture over the past few decades. The music, poetry, and graphic design of The Rheostatics and Nick Buzz, scoring Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark, directing and filming the movie Black Widow (with Mary Margaret O’Hara and Sarah Slean), a technical illustrator at the ROM, to his large body of visual art and surreal paintings. We had the pleasure of recording this interview earlier this month in Toronto.

1. The Rheostatics music did not seem concerned with being super cool or hip, freeing the songs to reference diverse sources like science (star gazing and archeology). Do you think that science drives art making? Yeah…when playing music is not about being normal or cool, all subjects are open. Science is one of these things – happens to be an interest of mine. Human history and archaeology are my latest obsessions. Something I was never into until I started looking into it. Seeing it everywhere.  It all finds its way into what I do inevitably. More so the visual side, because I get to examine these things – objects – directly, replicate them and figure out their beauty. It’s wanting to preserve and celebrate it – perhaps even hold its spirit, whatever that is, for a while. When I paint something I never forget it – it’s like a smell. I look at a sketch I did when I was eleven and I am immediately there. In my mind I froze that moment forever. Time stops and I can still hold that perfect moment.

lula-apr2. People obviously know you as a talented musician, but you also have a background in visual art, with solid graphic design skills.  Tell me about moving between these art forms, does being musical inform your visual work? I am a painter first… long before music. My mom studied art and I watched her draw and paint, and naturally started doing it myself. Later on, I may have actually avoided going to art school because it didn’t seem they were able to teach anything but theory.

Aside from the obvious aspects of the crafts, I don’t see any difference between art and music; it comes from the same place. It was never a question that, being a painter, I was going to do the art for the Rheostatics album covers. No one understands the music better than the people in the band. We saw the music from its original intent through to what it became. The sense of humour too.

The inspiration for both art and music comes from an unconscious place and it’s not good to be aware of it. You have to let it happen. Nothing has ever made any sense to me. It’s great to know all the stars or all the birds not as some sort of collector mentality, but more as a result of trying to find that moment where you see how immense it all is. Looking at something and really seeing it and taking it in like the impossibility that it is. Understanding it emotionally.

3. What are your favourite album covers of all time, and what are your favourite albums that you created? I never really thought of it as a type of art, but come to think of, it is. Album art has its own set of parameters and I’ve always approached doing a cover completely differently from how I paint for myself. When I paint for myself it is only about the subject. With an album cover the subject is the music. I try not to be literal but it has to inform it, it becomes part of the subject, and it has to somehow look good small and jump out.

So many great album covers for so many different reasons. Zuma – a Neil Young record. It’s so bad, so artless. Morrissey albums. They’re mysterious, evocative, yet easy. They make you ask questions.

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As for my own album covers, I like the cover for Melville and my latest cover for the Nick Buzz album. The first and last ones. They’re simple. I like the cover I did for Amelia Curran’s Hunter, Hunter. I can’t really say why they work or why I like them. As I mentioned earlier, it comes from an unconscious place. If I could explain why I did what I did, it would mean that it was probably not good.

4. The Group of Seven had such a strong method/process of using images of the Canadian wilderness as a device to help us understand who we are. Do you think that this tactic still holds water?  JEH MacDonald said “we have no group formula and are conscious of widely divergent aims. We have as little desire to be revolutionary as to be old-fashioned.” I love that statement.

The notion of painting a certain subject to tell a group of people “who they are” is absurd to me and I like to think the Group of Seven were purer than that. That idea feels political. I like to think they saw something beautiful and simply painted it to understand it, and to record it, to just show it. I guess they just went “This is a new frontier, it hasn’t really been painted before to our satisfaction, let’s paint it.” As someone who grew up a lot in Europe, this vast untouched space is the most unique thing about this country and I love it.

5. I am always curious about what creative folks are looking at and thinking about. What pieces of Canadian design do you think are interesting?  I’m interested in subtlety. Lines that take you places. Colours you’d like to eat. I love real craftsmanship and ambition. There’s nothing like the human hand, even when it’s trying to be like a machine. Striving for perfection.


When it comes to design, I’m not sure what’s Canadian or not, or what makes Canadian design different.  I like old Canadian postage stamps, Trans-Canada airline graphics, and the Keen’s mustard label. It’s yellow because it’s mustard, and a deep delicious red. Those colours go so well together and there’s interest in the design, it’s complex. Also its prime mandate isn’t to just get noticed. There’s harmony. I don’t like much modern design, but my Steinberger guitar is a perfect example of form following function. A tool stripped of unnecessary adornment, made to do what it’s supposed to do, and in this transcends art and becomes great design.

6. What about people, who are some of your favourite Canadian artists/designers? My Uncle Doug Martin is a huge influence on me. I never forget the linseed oil and turpentine smell of his studio. He showed me a tiny painting of the CN Tower once that he was working on – around the time it was being built –  I couldn’t believe a human could do that. Intricate, very soft, very beautiful.

My obsession with birds and animals led me to people like J. Fenwick Lansdowne and Glen Loates, both meticulous watercolourists. William Kurelek is also very important to me. George MacLean is one of my favorite painters period. He lives in Grey County, where I did a lot of growing up. Kurelek and MacLean are true recordists of parts of life that get overlooked because they are quiet and ordinary. It’s not about style, it’s all about the subject, to the extent that Kurelek used ballpoint pen, spray paint and anything he could, but you don’t see ballpoint pen or spray paint, you see the subject. I also admire the work of contemporaries and compadres Toni Onley, Kurt Swinghammer, Matt James and Andrew Rucklidge.

7. Some of your personal challenges have been public. I wonder if you think one has to suffer to make meaningful art, or are tortured souls drawn to art to help others see what they may not otherwise without that lens?  I’ve always been highly skeptical of this notion. Art can be good in so many different ways that it’s essentially impossible to answer. It seems to be a 20th century cliché that something is only good if the creator suffered. Norman Rockwell was one of the greatest painters of all time and he’s certainly not known to be a particularly tortured soul. My awkwardness has done as much to inhibit me as it did to inspire me.

rheostatics-20678. What does Canada need to do to turn up the volume of our creative community? Corporations will decide which art lives or dies, as they always have, and people will do art, as they always have. It seems like you’ve got to pick a side. Same as it ever was. Fill your own world with the art, architecture, design and music you like and if you can’t afford it – make it yourself. I guess I think that what government can do is limited and you can’t rely on it. I could say that they could put more money into it, but any real change comes from normal people’s attitudes. Government programs or funding can’t really affect that.

9. Do you think Canada will ever shake the image of maple syrup, hockey, buffalo plaid and antlers? Does this nation branding matter? What’s wrong with maple syrup and hockey? ‘Branding’ is a word that should be destroyed, it’s self-consciousness of the very lowest order, a term that made Herb Tarlek feel very sophisticated when he invented it.

I love that one of our symbols is a beaver – they’re amazing animals who shape our landscape as much as humans do. A grizzly bear would be arrogant, showboating. I think the chickadee should be the symbol of our country: everybody knows them, they’re cheeky, they’re small but incredibly strong – they stay here, they survive the winters.

10. The musicians you are currently playing with now are pretty heavy, but tell me about your dream band – who would be in it, and who would do the album art? I would play with Jon Goldsmith, Rob Piltch and Hugh Marsh and I would do the art!

Buy Martin Tielli music at Six Shooter Records and online at iTunes.

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