Narcissism Unto Loneliness, the EP from John Jacob Magistery, was released this March 2014. You may have heard the single, “The Greatest Story,” being played on CHOM Radio lately.
We’re sitting in a café on a rainy November night and I’m with Johnny Griffin, front man of John Jacob Magistery. Well, we started talking about the deepest shit we could muster, and now you get to read about it.
Ceilidh Michelle: Alright, you ready for this?
Johnny Griffin: Yes.
CM: Tell me about the first time you ever picked up a guitar. Do you remember what that felt like?
JG: The first time I played a guitar was at my friend Scott’s house. I used to skateboard with him. I was a skater kid. I met him, we became friends, I was listening to hip hop…
JG: Yeah, I only listened to hip hop. That was the music that I fell in love with. So I was at [Scott’s] house, he was taking guitar lessons and I just [started] screwing around. It sounded horrible, I’m sure, for anyone who was listening. But for me, it was just the best thing ever, that I could make those sounds.
CM: I was going to go ahead and ask you what you were listening to as a kid, but you said a lot of hip hop. Did you grow up listening to a lot of that?
JG: Well, when I was really young, I remember [I was listening to] whatever was on the radio. My mom would always ask me, “Who’s this? Who’s that?” I just loved music.
CM: Was there anything that stood out to you as a kid?
JG: I grew up with Van Morrison, Elvis Presley, you know, the classics.
CM: Did you ever have a clear, defining moment where you knew music was something you wanted to pursue?
JG: I don’t think so. But I always felt super drawn to [music].
I remember the first time that I heard someone playing a guitar. I think they were playing Smells like Teen Spirit. I was in grade seven. I heard someone practicing [the song] in the school auditorium and I thought it was the actual song [playing].
I went into the auditorium, and there’s this kid just playing. I remember being amazed by that, that somebody could make that, what I was hearing on the radio. That was a moment for me.
Oh, the first song that stood out to me was Outkast…you know that song, [starts singing] “Throw yo hands in the ai-air, and wave ‘em like you just don’ cayre,” I was like, “Oh man. This is the best.”
CM: That is the best.
CM: In your track “The Greatest Story,” you ask the question, “Will I wind up alone?” Do you think you make your best art when you’re in a place of solitude or when you’re in love?
JG: It’s strange, because it hits you at weird times, you know? I’m going through different stuff in the day; things are coming from different places.
When I listen to Bob Dylan, he can really get me into this zone. There are plenty of songs that [do that] too.
Or I could be watching a movie, or notice something…Okay, so the question, sorry. A place of solitude or when I’m in love?
CM: Haha, yeah.
JG: I don’t think [I make my best art] when I’m in love. I fall in love lots of different ways. It’s probably more heartbreak. Like when I’m in a place of sadness. Or a place where things are pent up.
CM: Do you think loneliness is something an artist needs in order to create?
JG: I think it depends on what kind of art you’re doing. Some people do art in groups? But I don’t really understand that. For me, it’s always definitely been from a place of solitude.
CM: If you had to choose between loneliness or love, what would you choose?
JG: Love. Of course.
JG: Obviously, yeah. But loneliness is different than solitude.
CM: True. Why did you call your single “The Greatest Story”? Do you think that loneliness and searching for love with the fear of winding up alone is in fact humanity’s central story, or their greatest story?
JG: That’s interesting that you put it that way, but that’s not why I called [the song] that.
When I wrote that line, the greatest story, it was kind of a nod or a wink, kind of sarcastic…Well, I don’t want to say sarcastic. But it’s a real feeling when you’re in this place of loneliness. There’s an aspect of narcissism in that. You might be feeling sorry for yourself, you might be thinking of, you know, all the things I say in the song.
You build up this legend of yourself that’s going to die. The greatest story ever told. That’s what it is for you. Everyone’s story, to themselves, is the greatest story told.
CM: So is John Jacob Magistry, is that a legendary self, or a mythological self that you’ve created?
JG: Not really. It’s the name of the band. But I got it from reading The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, also called Magister Ludi. Magister means master, but magistery means agency or substance which has to do with healing, transformation. As in alchemy. Turning something of lesser value into something of greater value.
CM: When you hear people use words like “love,” or “loneliness” what are some of the things that you immediately start thinking about?
JG: I don’t know, depends on who’s saying it, depends on what mood I’m in. Depends where I am. That’s a very strange…Those words could mean so many things. It’s how somebody says it. People don’t usually walk around going, “Love!” And then walk away, right?
CM: I don’t know man, I’ve overheard some pretty bizarre conversations…
So is it gratifying or just plain weird to hear your single “The Greatest Story” being played on the radio right now?
JG: Oh, it’s gratifying, for sure. I’m super happy that people are taking interest and buying [the EP]. I feel blessed that people are playing it on the radio.
CM: Do you have any advice to offer any other musicians as to getting their songs played on the radio?
JG: Well, Bilal [Butt] is a radio jockey I know and he came to see me play in pubs. I’ve known him for a while, so that was a big in. Also, I played with The Franklin Electric and they were on CHOM Radio. They were on CHOM before I was, so that was a good in, too.
I think it’s really just about who you know. And if you don’t know anybody, I’d say try to go out and meet as many people as you can. Keep being true to your heart. Keep putting out the stuff that you believe in.
CM: How long have you been playing in the Montreal music scene, playing bars and stuff?
JG: I’ve been playing since I was fifteen-sixteen. I was in a punk band in high school. But I moved to the city [of Montreal from West Island] when I was nineteen, and started playing open mics like crazy at Grumpy’s, at Brutopia.
CM: What do you love about being a musician in Montreal? Do you think you’d ever move somewhere else?
JG: Yeah, I’d love to. I want to experience so much. I’d definitely love to move somewhere else and check it out, but for now I think I’ve gotta stay here until things start becoming more stable. I’m just starting, you know?
We’re really in the beginning of the band. All those songs were done in one day. They were all done live. I never played with that band again [that recorded] with me. I’ve got a good group of people now who are really adamant about [the music] and we’re at the beginning. So it’s very cool that CHOM is playing [the track] because this is the very first single we’ve ever put out.
CM: That’s exciting.
CM: My last question is: Do you really think you’ll wind up alone?
JG: There’s a worry! For sure, haha! But I hope I don’t. Maybe if I keep on the right track, doing stuff like you’re doing, yoga and stuff like that, just be nice to people…
CM: I’m not that nice to people. Well, sometimes I try.
JG: That’s all you can do.
CM: Alright. Thank you very much.
JG: Thank you very much, Ceilidh.
John Jacob Magistery on BandCamp At $5 costs less than your next pint of beer and will last longer 😉