John Maksym - 10 Questions Music Interview
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Kitchener, Ontario-native John Maksym is a well-respected recording artist, songwriter, and live performer throughout Southern Ontario and beyond. As the frontman of several independent alternative rock bands from the late ‘90s to 2019, John especially honed his craft in the 13 years leading his most recent band, Breaching Vista. The highlights of his career thus far include working with Live Nation Canada on several events; directly supporting Marianas Trench, Finger Eleven, Theory of a Deadman, USS, Kim Mitchell, The Tea Party, and many more; playing festival stages for The Vans Warped Tour, Sound of Music, Beat Rocks the Block, and so many others; working with JUNO Award winning producer, engineer, and mixer Siegfried Meier, who recorded Breaching Vista’s single Sleep (which gained rotation on terrestrial radio in Canada); gracing the cover of ECHO magazine for the launch of his band’s album Vera City (2011); performing as special guests to CBC at the Gemini Awards; and John’s final BV song, Planet, was a semi-finalist (out of thousands of entries) in the Music City Song Star (2019) and Unsigned Only (2020) songwriting competitions. John is embarking on the next chapter of his musical journey in 2020, launching his career as a solo recording artist.
Was there something (an experience) or someone in your life that was the "catalyst" for you to start writing music? Tell us about it.
Music has been a huge part of my life since my early childhood when my Dad would pump Bruce Springsteen records through the house and let me bounce around on all of our furniture, singing-along to every song. I’d dress up in a red cape and a black mask, pick up my red toy guitar, and pretend to be just like Bruce on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. A few years down the road, just prior to my teens, I was introduced to Green Day’s “dookie” album, and when I started seeing music videos, concert footage and interviews on TV, I knew that I wanted to be just as entertaining as Billie Joe Armstrong. Both Bruce and Billie Joe are incredibly talented songwriters and entertainers, I think it was the combination of the two of them coming into my life that I came to realize my life’s passion of songwriting, recording music, and performing live.
Let's get this out of the way. What is the CRAZIEST thing that has ever happened to you in your music career?
What could possibly have been one of the most epic failures turned out to be one of the days most memorable in my former band's history, but this is a story of how our triumph was very sadly outweighed by another’s tragedy.
I’d personally been a longtime fan of the Vans Warped Tour, having attended just about every summer from the year 2000 onward. On the 12th anniversary for myself, I was no longer a spectator but finally an act! We had been invited to play in Toronto, and it was definitely one of those childhood dreams come true. Wanting to soak in every ounce of the day and be well prepared for load in at 7am, we decided that we would leave the night before to make the drive to Toronto, and sleep in our big red school/tour bus when we got on site. My bassist Mike was driving, and as we were taking a ramp to transfer highways, he very quickly maneuvered the bus to the shoulder. Thankfully there were no cars around us as it was roughly 1:30 a.m. When I asked what happened, he just responded something to the tune of “we lost power” with a very confused look on his face. We tried to start the bus back up, but it continuously failed on us. After about 30 mins of troubleshooting and trying to evaluate the problem, we finally decided to call our mechanic and wake him up at 2 a.m. Being in a fairly desperate position, we needed his help and he didn’t hesitate to jump in his car and meet us on the side of the road. He arrived somewhere around 4 a.m., and spent about 30-45 mins doing his own troubleshooting before fixing the problem. By 5 a.m. we were back on the road headed to play Warped!
After loading in and getting our merch tent set up, we found out that our set time was somewhere around 5:45 p.m. It was too exciting of a day to try and get any sleep that we’d missed out on overnight, so we did some promotion, watched some of the bands on the tour, and hung out with fans at the merch table. About halfway through the day a fierce storm rolled in, with crashing thunder and bright lightning, forcing the festival to temporarily shut down. Fans were evacuated from the grounds. I remember thinking to myself “this is it, we’re not gonna get to play Warped after all.” With the way the summer circuit had been going for us (losing 3 other festivals), it didn’t come as a surprise, and I just kept reminding myself to appreciate that for the first time we were actually part of the Warped family. Somehow I found comfort in that and was ready to accept our defeat. And then the storm passed by, the sun came back out from behind the clouds, and the festival was back on its feet. Our set time was bumped down to around 7pm, but my band was definitely playing!
I’d be lying if I said I could remember the 30 mins we had on stage. It’s pretty much a blur, but I do remember the feeling of pure elation that I had knowing that against all of the odds, here we were finally on the stage doing it. It was completely awesome. By far one of my fondest memories in music. We finished the night off with the annual after party BBQ.
What we didn’t know throughout most of the day though, was that in addition to the festival nearly shutting down from the intense storm, there was an even greater tragedy. A young teenage girl had collapsed while moshing in front of one of the stages, and succumbed to her injury as a result. It was during the set of the 2nd last band on the main stage that we had caught wind of the news. I remember the singer holding a moment of silence after giving a brief message to be careful and not take life for granted. Not being fully aware of why he was relaying this message, I eventually learned about a girl passing away mid afternoon. A mix of emotions, joy, sadness, and disbelief, were felt during the after party by my entire band. We were grateful to have experienced a successful day for ourselves, but shared in some of the hurt that was felt throughout the Warped family that night.
The next day we were shocked. Our Twitter account seemed to be blowing up with condolence tweets, tweets of gratitude, and general messages that somehow tied us directly into the tragic event of this poor girl's passing. We learned that this young girl was Taylor Nesseth. Not only a fan of our band, but a fan whose 2nd last tweet was reaching out to us one day prior to the Warped Tour. She tweeted that she was so excited to finally see us play, and I had personally responded to her saying “Awesome! We can’t wait!” sharing in the excitement. I never knew how much of an impact those 4 words were going to have.
After seeing her picture posted online, I instantly recognized her. She had never been to one of our shows before, but earlier in the year I had met her outside of a Simple Plan concert. Taylor was there with a group of friends standing in a long line awaiting the doors to open. I was walking up and down the line offering to take the concert goers minds off of the cold weather while they waited, by inviting them to sample some Breaching Vista music via my iPod and a couple sets of headphones I had. A guerrilla marketing technique that is both challenging and rewarding because you not only get to meet many potential new fans, but can also convert potential fans into album sales on the spot when you connect with a person who’s willing to take a risk and support an indie band. Taylor was that fan. Within the first few seconds of taking a listen to our music, she wanted a CD. I remember both her warm personality and her jumbo fuzzy slippers she was wearing at the time. We joked and compared shoes as she bragged that her feet were really comfortable and I complained that mine were completely frozen in my Converse Chucks. Before moving on down the line, I grabbed a photo with Taylor, as a way to show appreciation to our new risk-taking fans. I would take a photo with anyone who bought a CD from me, and then later post it on our Facebook band page as a thank you.
As more information began to circulate, and friends and family of Taylor shared stories online, I read about how she had saved up all of her babysitting money in a jar marked “For the Best Day Ever.” She had been waiting anxiously for this day to come and couldn’t wait to attend her first Warped Tour. To this day, I still find it hard to believe that my band was included in the plans of what was to be a young girls ‘best day ever.’ It’s very humbling and I personally feel honored to have met such a wonderful person, even if only for a moment.
Being a sentimental person myself, I couldn’t help but pick up a pen and paper with my guitar one night in the late summer of 2012. Reflecting on one of the most emotional shows that I’ve ever played, I penned a verse and chorus for Taylor. I’m not sure why I never continued to write anything further, or why it never transpired into a full song. Maybe it will in time, but for now, dedicated to Taylor Nesseth is a poem called “Best Day Ever”.
Best Day Ever
So long as never to forget
Celebrate your life
Though we mourn when you left us I never really got to know more than your name
You touched well over a thousand lives
I was there first hand for the moment of silence
The Warped Tour it’ll never be the same
Counting down the days
Every penny saved
Turning the calendar page I still can’t believe
You would say
We were gonna be part of
Your best day ever
What has been the high point of your music path?
I feel like I’m just getting started towards the high point. I’ve recorded a couple of full length albums and a couple of EP’s over the course of my music journey thus far, and each one of them was an incredible experience in musical development and growth. That being said, this year (2020) marks the first time in my life that I’m working on building my career as a solo artist, and it’s been the most fulfilling musical experience I’ve ever had.
I used to gauge my successes on the label artists that I would open for or the size of the audience that I’d play for, and while those have been hugely inspiring milestones for me in my career, I’ve taken a leap of faith this year putting all of my focus and energy into music and it’s been such a rewarding experience. I was always afraid to go “all in” because of limiting beliefs, the fear of criticism, a lack of self-confidence, but with the unconditional support of my family and a year of personal development mentorship under my belt, I’ve gone “all in” and I’ve never felt more freedom in my life than now.
So, how do you approach songwriting or what is your creative process like?
Goal setting experts often talk about reverse engineering. You set your goal or your target, and then you work your way backwards from the final result down to the starting point. This helps give you a path to follow to get yourself from point A-to-B, then B-to-C, so on and so forth. I feel like my creative process is much like this.
It starts with an idea or a creative spark. I’ve been inspired in many ways - from music and movies, to relationships and life experiences. When inspiration strikes though, it’s like I get this weird uncomfortable, almost nervous, feeling in my gut. It’s an anxious excitement-and-fear adrenalin rush all at once. What happens next is that I need to grab a guitar quickly and just start playing - either playing to figure out an idea that’s come to me or just start playing period.
Most often I’ll get a bit of a chord progression or melody, with a lyric idea at the same time. They seem to feed off of each other, but I almost always complete the basic song structure musically first. Then I carefully and naturally let the message of the song reveal itself to me through playing the song and letting the vibe and original lyric idea take me in a certain direction. When it feels like I’m onto something that’s resonating within me, I really hone in on it and begin writing down everything that’s coming to me in words and start to assemble a storyline into the song.
The funny thing is that while this is all simultaneously happening, I’m also already envisioning myself on a stage, in front of an audience, performing this (unfinished) song and feeding off of the energy of the crowd and their response to the song. This can help lead me in the direction of whether or not I’m working on an energetic anthem, a fun sing-along, a ballad, or something even more sombre and emotional where the audience holds their breath until the very last note rings out and you could hear a pin drop in the room. I can visualize and hear the instrumentation of the finished song, sometimes very specific parts played by very specific instruments - like a cello or steel pan solo - and then I set out on a quest to turn my visualization into a recorded song. When I get set on one of these ideas there’s literally no stopping me until I get there, and so I begin working my way backwards from the stadium tour to the pen and paper.
I am an avid goal setter myself, which is probably why this works well for me.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Indie Artists today? Or, if you could ask the music industry to change one thing, what would it be?
I think I can touch on both questions here. I feel that a lot of Indie Artists fear and resist change, and I believe it’s a mindset barrier or limiting beliefs that cause it. The thing with change is that it is inevitable. The only constant in life is change - you can always count on changes coming. What defines us as individuals is how we are able to adapt to the changes. So I find that a lot of challenges for Indie Artists stem from limiting beliefs, and telling themselves a story about why something isn’t working for them instead of finding or creating a solution, or if no solution is possible, then accepting it for what it is and moving on. I personally go through this all of the time myself. In business they refer to it as pivoting.
I’m excited to be an Indie Artist today. There’s never been so many opportunities to find creative ways to reach new fans across a global market, and to be in complete control of your career. What you put in is what you get out. If you’re not satisfied with your results then you’ve gotta look inward and navigate through all the stuff that’s holding you back, identify what your limiting beliefs are and change them. Come up with a new idea that provokes excitement into your body when you think about it, and start taking action in that direction. Your actions will create new results and then get into the habit of doing it all over again.
I wouldn’t ask the music industry to change anything because everything that’s happening is going to change eventually anyway. Carry on.
If you could share the stage with one other artist or band, who would it be and why?
Green Day. Hands down. They’ve been my favorite band since the 6th grade and there would be something incredibly special about sharing the stage with Billie Joe Armstrong, who basically sealed the inspirational deal on my life’s journey to become a successful artist myself. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen them in concert but the energy and authority that he brings to the stage at every show seems unmatched. They say that success leaves clues…so I’d like to get as close as I can to seeing how Billie Joe prepares himself for a show and then delivers, and what better way than playing that very same show with him?! (I’d also professionally frame that concert poster for the man-cave)
What are your rehearsals generally like? Or, how do you prepare for a live show?
Rehearsals today are fun! I’m in the processes of assembling a new band to perform with me in support of my solo material, and I’ve got such a great rhythm section. I’ve reconnected with my good friend Rick Guerrero, who is a phenomenal bassist. Rick and I had a pop-punk band together in high school called Klutz. This year is the first time we’ve played together since 2002, and it’s like we haven’t missed a beat. My drummer Fadi Khoshaba, is one of the most talented kids around, and he’s got such an incredible attitude. I call him a kid because Rick and I are in our mid 30’s and Fadi’s in his early 20’s, but we’ve got very organic chemistry and the energy in the room is contagious.
We’ve put some effort into setting up our rehearsal space as both a home recording studio and live streaming studio, with multi-tracking capabilities. That probably doesn’t mean much to most people but for us it means that we’re listening to studio quality audio during live rehearsals and live streaming performances. It’s also just as entertaining for us to interact and engage with our audience during a live stream rehearsal as it probably is for our audience watching us.
I love performing so I’ll answer both parts. The way I prepare for a live show starts with getting a vision for the show. I visualize how I want to look and feel on stage, how the audience engages with and responds to songs, and what moments I want to create within the show. Then I grab a pen and paper, and I write out a few variations of potential set-lists. I write out which moments I’m going to create within each song and then I grab my guitar and I play through the songs, sometimes with my eyes closed, to really zero in on the visualization of the show. Once I feel like I’ve got a set organized from start-to-finish that has a natural flow and changes the pressure on the audience throughout, I bring it to my band and we start doing full rehearsals. In my previous band we would record rehearsals live off the floor and then mix in some crowd noise between songs or during the engagement parts of the set, and I would listen to the rehearsal recording over and over again, so that I could really absorb every moment of the show and deliver it effortlessly on the night of the performance.
Pick one song that was your greatest challenge to write. Tell us about it!
Blame was a song that was 5 years in the making. I have a phone recording from September 15, 2015, with the original chord progression and some of the melody to the song. Ever since day one, the chorus melody has been the same, and the word "Blame" has always been the title and theme of it.
I remember thinking that the verse melody that was coming to me felt very influenced by Incubus, which was strange because I've never been a huge fan of that band. There are a few stand out songs that I had on my iPod years ago, but it's interesting how that influence could creep into my songwriting.
Fast forward to sometime in the spring of 2018, and I was showing my friend Mike Chhangur, a few new song ideas that I had. At that time we were playing together in a band called Breaching Vista, and were looking for new song ideas to run with. I showed him "Blame" and it immediately caught his attention. By this time, I had written the song in full and he really made a connection to the song. I mentioned that I wanted to take the song musically in the direction of Imagine Dragons and AWOLnation, exploring some of the alternative electro-rock modern day sounds, but that I had NO IDEA how to get the song there. We played around with it a bit in his studio to the point where a short 30 second demo was created, just enough to capture the essence of where I wanted to take it.
Then out of nowhere I said "I wonder if Jay, from USS, would want to produce this song?" kind of surprising myself at the thought, and Mike paused for a moment as if to process the thought himself, then quickly agreed that Jay would be the perfect guy for the job. A few short messages between some mutual friends and within a day or two, I was connected with and pitching my song idea to Jason Parsons, the popular DJ "Human Kebab" and one-half of the alternative rock duo, Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker (aka USS).
Once Jay heard the demo and direction that I wanted to go, he was fully on board and got straight to work. His manager, Liam, helped facilitate and arrange some studio time at Coalition Music (Studios) in Toronto, and the backbone of Blame was created.
In a twist of fate, Mike and I were forced to switch gears in order to complete another song that was in the middle of production at that time, and Blame ended up taking a back seat. Jay went on an extensive tour with USS at that time as well, and Blame became a project song that would be chipped away at over the course of another year, with the help of many more contributors.
With the disbanding of Breaching Vista in late 2019, I knew that the first few months of 2020 would be spent rebranding myself as a solo artist and releasing new songs right out of the gate. I knew that Blame was going to be my 3rd single, because I already had plans for the first two, and it would give me just enough time to tie up the loose ends with Blame and finally get it released.
Lyrically Blame was also a tough song to tackle. I drew inspiration from some dark moments in my life where I didn’t realize that my own mental health was unstable until I began working with a psychotherapist during the course of a long-term relationship coming to an end. I spent 4 years in therapy and they were some of the most transformational years of my life. Having traumatic experiences in my childhood and again in adulthood, but coming out of them as a much stronger version of myself, a close friend leaned on me while they too were going through a very difficult time and I was grateful to be there to help. I also drew inspiration for Blame from watching their struggles, grief, and disappointment in themselves, so it ended up being the story of two of us combined into one. It’s the song that so many people seem to be able to connect with in different ways, and I think it’s because it gives a voice to the truth that many people are afraid to accept and speak for themselves, but are out there searching for.
Blame is about taking a look at yourself in the mirror during a time in your life when you’re not proud of who you are, and taking ownership of the circumstances you’re in, in order to change them.
What's coming up in the future?
Throughout the pandemic I’ve kept busy continuing to record new songs and I’m working to finish off a couple that will complete the first of two EP’s that I have planned for release. I haven’t set a release date yet, but the Fear EP will be released this year, followed by the Freedom EP next year. I have an overarching message to “Take Freedom on the Other Side of Fear”, meaning that if you find yourself at a point in your life where you feel stuck because of things that you fear (the fear of failure, the fear of criticism, the fear of being hurt, etc), you need to push through that fear because the most freeing experience awaits you on the other side.
Look me up on your favorite socials and streaming services @JohnMaksymMusic, follow/like/subscribe because there is plenty of new music coming. I’m only just getting started!
Tell us where fans can access your music?
Drinkin’ & Thinkin’ DistroKid Link
Blame DistroKid Link
For more information on John Maksym, plase visit his website.