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"Let's See Where I Can Take These Songs": Nathan John

By Will Yannacoulias

Regina’s Maxstone are a veteran punk rock band who have earned a fervent fan base on the foundation of fast, complex songs, skilled musicianship and the polished, passionate voice of founding member Nathan John. Fixed Frequency Records released a label sampler in May 2021 which featured both Maxstone and a new solo track from John, the beautiful “Down Below Us”, showcasing for the first time the more subdued, contemplative side of John’s songwriting talents. “Down Below Us” was followed by the August release of The Ensuing Madness, an eight track offering of John’s solo work. The Ensuing Madness has surprised and impressed listeners; the strong, honest voice, unforgettable melodies and sparse acoustic songs of an earnest singer-songwriter combine with the complex arrangements and dark, introspective lyrics of a heavier influence to make for one of the most unique and exciting Saskatchewan indie releases of 2021.

Nathan John is no newcomer to the local music scene, as his band Maxstone are well known for an engaging live show and two albums of intense focused punk rock. “The group that would become Maxstone has been together since junior high, the same guys playing with each other since grade six or seven” John recalled. “We’d go blast out of the drummer’s basement at his parents house and his Dad put up with it! We were so loud and I can remember just being so young and excited and going as hard as I could. Later my dad turned an old shed into a jam space. Many years were spent there, many good times in that tiny room just having friends over, playing music. When I go back and look at that little shed I’m flabbergasted. All we needed was a few instruments and some good people and we had the best time.”

The songs that would appear on The Ensuing Madness date back several years; rough demos, worn out notebooks and half hummed melodies John carried with him waiting for an opportunity to present itself. “It kind of began a while back” John shared. “Years ago I had demoed three or four of these songs and threw them onto Myspace. I had been sitting playing guitar alone and had this urge to write specifically for the acoustic guitar. I had a great time with the songs and really liked them and always wanted to take them to the next level in a studio. For years the songs sat there at the back of my mind, I never got around to it; I focused on working and playing in Maxstone, and they went to the wayside. Then there was a pandemic, I found myself with all this time and I thought ‘this is it, let’s see where I can take these songs’. I made some changes, updated the songs, rewrote a few parts, I had song ideas half written sitting in a notebook that I’d never recorded. I finished them up, arranged them and started playing them by myself while I had this spare time. I felt I wanted to dig deeper and push for an actual release.”

John knew immediately that he wanted to work with Justin Bender’s Divergent Sounds studio in Moose Jaw, with whom he had worked in the past and felt comfortable with. More than a simple studio engineer, Bender became a creative collaborator who had a role in shaping the layered songs that characterize The Ensuing Madness. “We’ve known him for years and he’s done lots of our Maxstone stuff” John explained. “I told him I wanted to do stripped down acoustic versions of these songs, single guitar and my vocals. Justin encouraged me to put down backing vocals, bass and piano, and added in some percussion. The strings were Justin’s suggestion as well, we sent the songs to Megahammer Studios in Winnipeg. I was a little skeptical but after hearing ‘The Haunting’, I was so impressed, I thought they really killed it. As the arrangements became more complex I called on Brett (Marit, Maxstone guitarist) to do some lead guitar work. I really trusted Justin’s judgement and it worked out really well. I’ve got to thank him for pushing me, I’m very comfortable with him. The finished songs aren’t what I had envisioned but they turned out much better. I’m very grateful to have such talented people make this record sound the way it did.”

John’s strength is as a songwriter both musically and lyrically, bringing memorable yet unexpected melodies, interesting engaging arrangements and deeper lyrics that draw the listener in. John shared some insight into his songwriting process, reflecting that “Every artist is picky; you doubt yourself, is this any good? Am I playing this part too many times? When I approach songwriting I try to structure it so you don’t expect what’s coming next. Mainstream artists will follow the same tried and true formula and write songs the way they know people will like. When you move into more independent songwriters and artists you find a different mindset, where people put a spin on those formulas. I always try to arrange without too much repeating, keep it fresh throughout a song, keep that tension there and avoid it being predictable.”

John’s sights are set squarely on the future, as The Ensuing Madness is not a one-off, but the first release of a project which he intends to return to in the future. “I saw this album as something I wanted to do as a milestone. Now that it’s done I’m going to have to find new inspiration, a lot of these songs are older and I’m not the same person I was. I’ll ask myself as I write new material, do I want it to take a different direction? I don’t want to make the same record twice, I want to progress. There’s that pressure there, do I want the songs dark? Happy? I suppose it really depends on where you are in life. When I wrote these songs I wasn’t necessarily in a dark place but I was going for a dark feel, melodic but dark. I’m so glad I explored it, and I can’t wait to write more acoustic music and see where it takes me.”

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