I first stumbled across the music of Dion McVey a few years ago on YouTube. I found his music different and refreshing – a welcome change from the 98% of X-Factor wannabe’s populating that site. Dion would be the first to admit that his tunes were not the finished article, but they certainly grabbed my attention – and that of many others. His writing and performances, at turns quirky, dark, bitter, plaintive and introspective evokes shades of cult figures like Nick Drake, Morrissey or Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen), rather than the more ‘mainstream’ Young, Simon or Dylan.
I have titled this interview after the James Joyce novel, not just because of Dion’s age (he has just turned 21), but because it is famous for being written in the ‘stream of consciousness’ mode. I get the feeling that Dion achieves something similar with his music. He has quite severe hearing impairment and I think this somehow serves to eliminate a large part of the conscious process most artists go through, between the music as an idea and as a final product. Perhaps it is one of those cases of a perceived curse turning out to be an incredible gift.
As you will see from the interview, music is not the central focus of Dion’s life right now. But the more music he makes, the more chance I believe there is of us getting some modern masterpieces from him in the future. In the last year or so, Dion has been on a quest of experimentation, creating interesting soundscapes and songs different and good enough to momentarily take your breath away. Just go over to his Musicians Together channel and listen to a few random songs – you’ll see what I mean. There is a huge amount of potential here.
MT: How, when and why did you get started making music?
Dion: It all started off back in junior’s school, as that was when I had my first encounter with a piano. We had a ‘jack the lad’ teacher who would play the piano in assembly as a way of showing off to his female colleges. I thought nothing of it at first but then one day he made us all sing along to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the wind’ instead of the traditional hymns. When I first heard Dylan’s lyrics I was really taken back. I began to develop an interest in Bob Dylan at the age of roughly ten years old. It wasn’t ’til I was about the age of 14 that I really started to mess around on the piano, as that was when I started compulsory music lessons at school. I didn’t do too well in music as I had very little interest in anything that was being taught, all I ever wanted to do was play the piano and make up songs.
I come from a very musical family and I guess that helped influence my passion for all things musical.
MT: So what were your family listening to and playing?
Dion: Well I grew up with an odd mixture really; I have a mother that used to blast out Queen – both the classics as well as the non-commercial tracks. Her taste in music changed often as I grew up she has been through a Hip- Hop stage, a Drum n Bass stage and now she is listening to heavy metal bands such as Slipknot and Korn.
My Stepfather was listening to 80’s disco, he also listened to bands such as Chicago, The Drifters, The four Tops, ELO and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. However, whenever my mother wasn’t around he would listen classic rhythm n blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, T Bone Walker, Elmore James and Jimmy Read. Out of all the blues stuff it was Jimmy Read that really stood out to me.
My older brother was into the ‘jungle’ music and 90’s hip hop scene. I don’t really recall having much interest in his music – but what I found strange about him is that, despite his listening taste, he could play fantastic rock guitar. Recently he has come out of his shell and has revealed that he listened to bands such as blur and oasis during the 90’s.
My father wasn’t really in my life till I was about 13 due to complications caused by his divorce with my mum. However as a child I’ve always known him for being the lead guitarist of a cult psychobilly band called Skitzo. It’s because of him I play guitar. I’m pretty sure it’s the same reason for all of his boys.
MT: Can you remember the first full song you wrote?
Dion: My first full production song or the first ever song that I wrote?
MT: Just the first song you finished, whether anyone’s ever heard it or not…
Dion: My first ever song is Mr. Paranoid. It has over a thousand views on YouTube. I’m proud of the lyrics but not the chorus or the song. I have some very very old recordings of me singing a few song ideas, but Mr Paranoid is the first to be completed.
MT: You had a few songs with loads of views around that time – late 2008. Are you bothered that your earlier stuff, that you aren’t so proud of, got so many hits?
Dion: Yeah, I’m kinda annoyed at myself. See, when I first started recording my songs I was using a webcam to record and was too eager to release them as they were. I fear that was my biggest mistake, because I believe that people who come to my YouTube account now look at the video with the most views and get put off by how bad the song is and won’t bother to look at my new stuff.
MT: So how come you haven’t taken it down?
Dion: I use them as a way of drawing people to my newer music. Despite how bad the songs are, people still come to the channel and I guess there is a tiny ray of hope that they will check out my new stuff. The minute one of my new songs gets over a thousand views I’ll probably remove the other videos and start over.
Also, I have found that Musicians Together has given me a fresh start. I’ve been able to present myself to a new audience in the way I really want to be seen, right from the beginning.
MT: Before we get into your new stuff on MT, I want to spend a little more time on your back catalogue. You brought out three tunes in late 2009 that made me sit up and take notice: ‘The Politicians and the News,’ ‘Sleepless Shifts‘ and ‘Out of Place.‘ I think that’s probably when a few other people started to sit up and take notice too. Was there anything special/significant about that period?
Dion: Well, ‘Out of Place’ was written when I left Sixth Form. I guess it was just me reflecting how I felt during my academic life. I wasn’t always the most popular kid during secondary school, but that all started to change when I entered Sixth Form – as they treated me like a person, rather than stereotype. I guess that in itself made me feel ‘Out of Place.’
‘Sleepless Shifts’ has an unusual story. See, I found a lump and was waiting for the doctors to give me the results from all the tests. During all that waiting, I somehow managed to convince myself that I was dying of cancer – and ‘Sleepless Shifts’ was born. Of course, now I look back and think that I was a complete Muppet. However, despite the fact that I hate the sound recording, I do like my voice in it – as I really was singing the song like it was the last song that i would ever sing. I gave it my all. Another thing that makes me happy about that song is that my father rang me up crying on the phone, telling me that the that song struck a chord with him. That was the first time he ever acknowledged me as any form of musician.
Politicians were just me getting pissed off - tired all the bullshit that is fed to us through the media. The remake that I did of ‘Politicians and the News’ on Musicians Together was inspired by my experience of the student riots that happened in London. I was there and can honestly tell you that there were hardly any violent people there.
MT: I’m going to be totally honest now and hope you don’t get upset. I think 2010 was a lean time for you. Like the muse had taken a year off. Do you think this is a harsh assessment?
Dion: No, not at all. That was when I discovered Radiohead for the first time. ‘Paranoid Android’ was the song that made me go, “wow, that’s the music I want to make.” Through experimenting I feel like I’ve managed to take at least one step in that direction. But if you look at all my back catalogue you should notice that every single song has at least one thing that I’ve never done before. For example “I Don’t Know’ was first song that I had ever experimented with harmonies on.
Also a good friend of mine, David Greenslade, introduced me to the metronome. He had a basement by Chatham Dockyard once upon a time. He would force me into the corner of the basement with a metronome running through the PA system at a very annoying volume and wouldn’t let let me move until I was playing music in time. he did this continuously for about a month!
MT: I don’t want to dwell on any negativity – I reckon your writing just suffered a bit while you were working out your sound/musicianship during that period – I think we discussed some of the ‘sameness’ in the vocal melodies?
So anyway, I would still regard your most recent songs (2011) as experimental, but it is like in some way you have had an epiphany. The quality of writing and production has gone through the roof. Is that something to do with self-confidence?
Dion: I totally agree. During the last year or so I’ve been working on the music itself more than the lyrical content. ‘Let it Rain’ is a perfect example of that. I wrote the lyrics while I was recording each section of the song and while I think it was a turning point for me musically, lyrically it was a disaster
I think the ‘epiphany’ as you call it, is not based on self confidence at all. In fact, I have a lot of confidence issues regarding my music. I think it came from from a,”‘F**k you, I’m still going to do what I love doing,” attitude that I’ve developed because of all the negative comments I’ve received in the past. Yet at the same time I contradict myself, because deep down I still care.
…oh and better recording equipment has helped me out as well…which you recommended by the way…
MT: Yep, makes sense. Sounds like good motivation. ‘MTV‘ definitely feels like one of those “fuck you” moments…that song blew my socks off.
Dion: I hate my voice in that song. Not to mention a bizarre sounding song. . .for me anyway.
MT: Weird. That’s probably my favourite song of yours. We’ll have to let the listeners decide, I guess.
Dion: Haha, indeed.
MT: So where is all this headed, this music stuff? Are you hoping to be able to do it full-time or is it just a hobby?
Dion: I’m planning on getting an RC-50 loop station as soon as I get some money – and work on my live performance. I’m going to test the waters while I’m at uni and do a few open mic nights. If i get to a stage where i think i’m any good, I’ll try and so some gigs. I’d like to do it full time, but for now I have to treat it as a hobby due to commitments with university.
MT: Not a lot of people might be aware that you have some hearing impairment. Tell us a little about that and how it affects your music – and maybe life in general too.
Dion: Well I can’t really compare how different I am to someone with normal hearing as I was born with a hearing loss.
But what I can tell you is this the following; I’m severely hearing impaired to the point that I can’t sustain a conversation without my hearing aids. However, when I’m playing music I remove my hearing aids and rely purely on the vibrations of the instruments I’m playing. I have worries how I will be able to cope whilst doing a live performance, as I fear that I won’t be able to hear myself though the PA system. In general life I find my condition frustrating as most people can’t tell I’m hearing impaired due to my well developed speech. My hair also covers the aids. Whenever I haven’t heard or have misheard what is being said, this can make me appear to be either an arsehole who ignores people or someone who has very few brain cells.
MT: Ok, last question…will you remember Musicians Together when you’re rich and famous?
Dion: Haha. IF I got famous, I would not forget Musicians Together. In fact, I’d promote the site dramatically and would most probably try and get more involved. I’d also inject a hell of a lot of money into the project to help you achieve your goal.
I genuinely mean that – no brown-nosing at all!
MT: What a guy! Thanks for the interview Dion.
Dion: You’re welcome, cheers.