Music interview: Martin McNeil & The Dissidents

Martin McNeil (left) & Jimmy Bartolo, founders of Martin McNeil & The Dissidents

You’d think that with a record deal in the UK with his former band Rehab and a hit that made him “shine brightly and sporadically” on the London scene, Malta would be the last place singer and song-writer Martin Mc Neill would want to wind up in. You’d be wrong. Malta, he tells me, turned out to be the perfect inspiration for him to kickstart his writing and focus on his music, with no distractions.

You might have seen the tall, blonde musician at one of his gigs. Since, together with his band The Dissidents, he erupted on the scene with a very well-received performance at Coach & Horses, Martin has been a regular presence on the local gig circuit. Or you might even have seen him busking in Valletta’s Republic Street – because yes, he does that too. Busking might not be that popular in Malta (yet) and I tell Martin as much, wondering out loud why an established musician like him would want to put himself on the street. Martin is puzzled at my question:

“There is nothing like busking to help you build up confidence and to establish a stage persona. Of course busking is tough. But it’s the best way to put yourself out there. If you can deal with that, performing on a stage is a breeze. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. You learn how to engage with the passers-by. A smile, a look, a bit of interaction…it’s not only about the music, these too make a difference to whether someone will walk past without a second look or whether someone will actually stop to make a donation,” he tells me.

So how did The Dissidents come into being? It all started when Martin met up with Jimmy Bartolo. The two started jamming – vocalists Alex Alden and Alison Lewis then entered the equation. Alex, aged seventeen, is described by Martin as being “scarily talented”. He speaks equally highly of Alison, who is based in Michigan and whom he only met with once some four years ago.

“I loved her sound and we immediately said we’d work together. As you can imagine, quite a lot of file-sharing goes on between us, given the lack of proximity.”

Martin describes The Dissidents as “a loose collective of musicians with a common ethos”. The group have recorded in Malta, in Sicily and in Michigan, so it’s quite the international effort. Their first album is expected to be released early spring, however some of their music is already available on-line.

“We’re quite excited at the latest developments. The Cardinals’ drummer and the guitarist have already endorsed our work. We also secured the participation of actor Mark Ruffalo, who is lending his voice to one of the songs on the album.”

How did this happen, I ask.

“I wanted to use him on the song Lock Down, which is all about corruption. I know that he is very active within the Occupy Wall Street movement and I when I found a public statement of his and experimented a bit with some voice-overs, the whole thing worked perfectly. I managed to get hold of him through Twitter. After I messaged him he got back to me immediately with a positive reply. Lock Down is a very political song and he is a very political person, he wanted to be part of it.”

The upcoming album, Martin tells me, will have a bit of a Super 8 feel to it. It’s all about the art, he adds, as opposed to the lip-syncing. He looks forward to launching it on the Maltese scene, which he describes as “very healthy”. The one aspect of working here that he can’t get over, however is the way that musicians are not yet perceived as providing a value service.

“People seem to expect musicians to work for nothing here. You get a festival organiser who thinks he’s doing you a favour by ‘letting you take part’. It does affect the scene negatively, of course. However, there is indeed a thriving scene; it would be a lot healthier if performers were treated more as professionals but there it is. You have a lot of younger musicians who will not take the step of making this their profession, precisely because of these issues.”
The talk drifts to the way modern technology has also affected the performing arts. What about illegal downloads, I ask, has he been affected by the phenomenon? Martin’s reply isn’t as negative as I might have expected.

“Put it this way, yes people will download stuff without paying for it. However the technology has also helped the musicians themselves to reach a bigger audience and even to produce their music without necessarily needing a massive budget. At 43 I’m embracing the advantages that this technology brings with it. Today you don’t need huge studios to produce an album. I think this whole DIY approach is totally cool.”

Martin mentions a number of musicians whose work he finds inspiring: Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Bridges and The Smiths to name a few. He adds that artists like these make up the chunk of his busking repertoire, despite the fact that he’s not too keen on playing covers.

“In Malta people love to hear covers. I was never one for covering someone else’s overplayed songs but… I realised that if I didn’t do that here I’d soon be on a plane back home,” he says nonplussed.

About his gigs, he says that some of his best performances were in the smallest of pubs with about ten people for audience.

“It’s all about the energy. And the energy at this gig was amazing. Valletta needs a bit of that energy and vibe. It’s certainly built for it, but it hasn’t quite got there yet. I get some great experiences busking. But the biggest challenge in this profession is definitely not the performing bit. It’s the actual song-writing. I’m not particularly prolific and after all, it’s all about the process. The other big challenge? Finances, of course.”
About performing, he does add that many people tend to forget that musicians are human beings, with all the possible failings of a human being. Things happen, the tells me. Whether it’s due to an off day or sickness, some gigs will be awesome while others not so much.

“The show must go on, of course. But things can and do go wrong, especially if you’re playing live constantly.”
What about image? How big a part does it play in the success or otherwise of a band?

“It’s not half as important as you’d think. You need appeal mostly. When your music starts taking shape, so does your image of course. It happens naturally. Our image fits our music. But if you’re comfortable with yourself, it’s all good. This is one of the reasons why some bands sound fantastic in the studio and then fall flat when playing live. More than the image, it’s the appeal and the confidence that would be the problem. Busking has helped me so much in these two areas…”

Martin describes how The Dissidents all have diverse music backgrounds but the one thing they all have in common is the determination to make it. He tells me that the goal is to have their music placed by the end of this year, either in a movie or a documentary.

“I believe our music is very well-suited to that sort of thing. I’ll be watching a scene on television and I’ll replay the scenes in my mind, thinking to myself how one or another or our compositions would complement it perfectly.”

Martin Mc Neil & The Dissidents will be performing at Coach & Horses in B’Kara on Friday, January 27. You can listen to their music on

This interview was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta)