How does a band with a Catholic lead singer make out in the Protestant - dominated world of Christian rock? Mike Rimmer met Martin Timlin of SNORKEL to find out.
There are two problems. Firstly, I am driving a car that Brian Houston has graciously lent me, but it's a little bigger than I am used to. Secondly, my wife Pippa and I are lost somewhere south of Belfast. To be honest, my knowledge of local geography is less than zero, and I am following instructions given by Snorkel's Martin Timlin to get to a garage somewhere near his house where he'll meet me. The radio news is telling me of the unrest that is beginning to ferment as the Irish Apprentices are due to march in the next few days. I take the correct turning and I am met by British soldiers with guns and trucks stopping traffic. It's the first sign of the Troubles since I've been in Belfast, and I am shocked by something that used to be part of every day life here.
The soldiers don't stop me, and Martin meets me at the garage and takes me on the complicated journey to his freshly built and newly bought home. We're here talking because Snorkel's debut 'Presence' EP has established them as a young band to watch. But what are the band about? "For me personally, I write songs as I'm journeying, walking with Jesus," says Martin. "It's just whatever's happening to me at the time in my own heart. I put the ideas together, just have a vision for writing a song and hope that if I put this together, if this is an experience and I'm conquering it, maybe then I'll be able to pass on some encouragement, enlightenment to fellow Christians or someone sitting in a pub. I try to write the songs in a language everyone will understand. Coming from that scene you see so many bands that are just singing this negative rubbish, and from the start of the band I just wanted to write happy music. I suppose, ultimately, I'm hoping that someone listening in a pub would be drawn towards Christ and start asking questions."
On the Friday night when we meet, the band had originally intended to
rehearse for some upcoming gigs, and I was looking forward to seeing
them in action. Their regular drummer is away and they were planning
on breaking in a new drummer. Unfortunately, the replacement drummer
could not make the gigs, but recommended his brother who was also a
drummer and a Christian! However the "Christian" drummer refused to
play with the band when he discovered that Martin is a Catholic.
Such prejudice has also reached its tentacles into Martin's personal life. As Pippa and I sit around chatting with Martin and his fiancée Julie, they tell us they are getting married. Martin is a Catholic and Julie is a Protestant and together they make a beautiful couple and a statement of reconciliation. Unfortunately, their families don't see it that way. Martin says, "To be a Christian most people perceive you must be Protestant, that you can't be Catholic and be born again. We had hassle about where we were gonna get married and parents not agreeing on it. It's just ended up being a real nightmare for the both of us because we're trying to please people but there's no pleasing them. So we prayed about it and thought about it. We said the only thing we can do here is to go away and then nobody will be fighting about it. If we go away, get married, come back and get on with our lives, hopefully, people will just come to terms with it. We thought about where we would like to go, and for me getting married in Jerusalem was a dream. It's tough for me, because to be on the receiving end, and to be rejected for your upbringing and your identity and your faith is hurtful. For me the biggest challenge that I've had from God is to raise my thoughts, keep my eyes focused on him, and not take it personally. I believe in unity because there's one God and one Spirit, one Father above all. It's really on my heart to build the bridges across the divide, live together in harmony." By the time you read this, Martin and Julie will have returned from their honeymoon.
Martin's ordinary upbringing means that he is able to relate to others like himself who frequent the pubs and clubs that Snorkel wish to play in. He was in his early teens when he got into rock music and drugs and alcohol and solvent abuse. He describes it as, "Any kind of thing that was an escape from the drone of life as it was at the time. I didn't know where I was going, but it was exciting, because I knew I was doing, what I wasn't suppose to be doing and there was something drawing me along that path. I continued on and it got worse - I got into harder drugs. I was enjoying it but I knew what I was doing; it was my reaction towards life as I'd seen it. I was just looking around and I was going, 'There's something really wrong here, something's not sitting right with me'. Although I wasn't fully aware at the time, I was seeking and trying to find answers because it was like when you're told, 'Don't go and do this - sticking your hand on wet paint just to see that it was wet.' It was that kind of approach."
Martin got into trouble leading the rock'n'roll lifestyle. He was playing in bands but fell out with his family because they didn't approve. But his life was more important to him than his relationship with his family. He recalls, "I was saying, 'I'm alive here, and if there's something I wanna do I'm gonna go and do it,' because I didn't want to reach an age where I ' wish I had done this. I wanted to experience as much as I could. I got through all the drugs, and I the different music scenes came along and I just' jumped in with both feet." Then the outbreak of dance culture happened and Ecstasy arrived. Martin remembers, "I was a bit reluctant but I wanted to try it as well, I didn't want it to pass and not have experienced it, so I started taking 'E'. I think it was the first time I actually took one. I went to a place called the Arena in Armagh, to a Harmony Rave and I got this feeling of love, I just loved everybody! So I was walking round full of joy, feeling brilliant, feeling good and thinking to myself, 'Yes! I've cracked it, I've found it, I've really found peace, I feel at one here,' and then had this experience. It was like an out of body experience, it felt like in a split second that I was lifted, and I have recognised it as just being lifted in the Spirit and given a kind of view, God's view, of what was happening that night. It was the complete opposite to what I was seeing; all of a sudden, in a flash, I had just seen lovely young girls projectile vomiting, epileptic fits and just screwed-up faces. It just hit me like a ton of bricks, and nobody was crying, people were turning their backs on the ones that were having fits because that was distracting them from having a good time. I suppose I just felt like God saying to me, 'Son, have a good look round. You haven't cracked it at all, you're not in the right place, you're in the wrong place.' It really hit me in the heart. I went, 'Oh no! I'm totally in the wrong place here, I have to get out of here.' I really felt convicted then."
Martin continues, "After I had that experience, it was strange because I remember going back to my mate's that night, and I was a bit stunned. I didn't want to start telling him what had just happened, to me because I was in a drug-induced state as well. I knew a few people who were Christians and I could see that they had something; they had some sort of peace or contentment. I just started reading the Bible over and over. I asked my mum for a Bible and I got one of the wee Gideon Bibles and just started reading it, through the Gospels every night. I started reading through Revelation, and there was a Scripture that convicted me about being lukewarm and spewed out of the mouth and I was going, 'Oh that's me, that is.' I knew around the time I just needed a change in my life and I knew that God was speaking to me, I knew for some reason I was reading this Bible every night without fail, no matter what state I was in, and that he had something for me."
Timlin took a trip to Israel at this time with some friends. "I knew inside that I was going there for some particular reason." He remembers, "We were still doing a bit of drinking when we got there, and I decided one night, 'That's it! I haven't come here to do this, I'm gonna stop, I'm gonna make a commitment.' I went to the Wailing Wall. My friend told me what you do, you write a wish on a piece of paper and then you stick it in the wall. My wish was to get to know the person Jesus Christ. I folded it up, put it in the wall and that was it. My life turned around from there, that was it."
When he returned, one of his friends and band-mates, Jacko, put him on the spot. Martin says, "Jacko said to me, 'Did you find anything, did anything happen to you?' I thought it was strange as he wasn't a Christian. I was taken aback, and he started to say that he had been talking with his wife about the Bible and about God. I was relieved, because I didn't know how they would react if I told them about what sort of direction I wanted to go in my life, so that was great! We talked about it and I said I had committed myself to God, and I knew then that I had asked Jesus into my heart and knew I was a Christian. I knew I was forgiven. I felt light; I felt the burden lifted off me. I knew I had a heart full of hope, I knew there was a new life for me and I was just really excited about it. From then on I started writing songs, Christian songs as opposed to just writing some rubbish and thinking somebody would be interested. I was thinking, 'Yes! I really wanna play music here, and I want to help people who are in the same situation as me.'"
From the point of his dramatic conversion, Martin has played and recorded songs that reflect his faith. Even though Snorkel are a Christian band, they are mainly playing in pubs and mainstream venues. In October they played at the Best Of Belfast showcase where, along with five other bands, they were recorded by the BBC for broadcast on Radio 1 and two songs on a live CD. They were the only Christian band on the bill, and went down well enough to attract attention from promoters who want to book the band elsewhere. The future looks bright for Snorkel!
At the end of the evening, Martin leads me back to the garage where we met, and I decide I need to fill Brian Houston's car with petrol. I line up with the petrol pump, it's midnight but I cannot work out how to undo the petrol cap. Martin, Pippa, Julie and I all have a go. We must make a strange sight for the garage staff, hunched over the car looking suspiciously like car thieves. Thankfully, the army are no longer around! I am about to get Brian out of bed by calling him on my mobile when Julie cracks it! Thanking them, we head back for Belfast.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.