writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: May 2015

Songwriters on Songwriting: Mark Allan

Mark Allan, aka Isaac Brutal, has been releasing DIY recordings since 1984’s ‘I’m A Mutant Whore (But My Children Still Love Me)’ through to this year’s Trailer Trash Express release, Night of the Living Trailer Trash (see below).

These days, he says:

‘I aspire to be the reclusive old man in the ramshackle, reputedly haunted house with the overgrown garden that the neighbourhood kids are scared to enter to retrieve their ball. When I die I want my remains to be placed in a medieval cage on the lamppost outside my house (council permitting) for the crows to pick at my eyes as a cautionary tale to others.

‘In the interim I’ll settle for friends and strangers alike getting something from my songs and gigs (even if it’s only an uncomfortable ill at ease feeling in the pit of their stomach) or at the very least an excuse to get out the house to go to the pub.’

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

It’s fair to say it’s evolved over the years due in the main to my inability to play an instrument back in the day, so it was all about the lyric scribbling. These days though it’s pretty much the tune that comes first although I generally have scraps of paper milling around with ‘amusing couplets’ waiting for a home.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

I mainly use my Ibanez acoustic guitar as I do believe the age old adage that a song should work solo sans sonic embellishments. Having said that I do like to let my avant garde streak off its leash and have experimented with all sorts of sound sources including humpbacked whales, operatic samples and vacuum cleaners to name but three – so maybe I’m talking out my hole regarding the acoustic test. I also find a new instrument generally equates to at least one new song so my house is littered with all sorts (various guitars, pan pipes, keyboards, autoharp and as of last week a nice shiny electric 12 string. (ACF: I know. Can’t wait to get a loan of that…)

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

I imagine I’m no different to anyone else in this day and age in that you pick up all sorts of influences both consciously and unconsciously. You are the sum of your environment (or some such nonsense). I find the process of song writing quite difficult in so much as if I sit down to ‘try and write a song’ from scratch the results are rarely satisfying although as my guitar playing and vague grasp of musical theory improves I find the music side of things a bit easier although tunes are more likely to occur when I’m for want of a better phrase, fannying about. Lyrically I tend to wait for inspiration which can be anything from a snippet overheard, something read or alarmingly frequently a sick, yet amusing couplet will appear fully formed in my brain. Chance encounters can also be brilliantly productive. Such as the rambling drunk in the local hostelry (The Centurian) suddenly blurting out “Japanese Flyboy Says, Oomph The Monkey!” (which became an album title mainly based on the fact that it was better than his other memorable utterance “Crocodile,Crocodile, Up yer arse!”

Or the local Grassmarket vagrant who stops you in your tracks and points at the contents of the kiddies pram he’s pushing, a black and white stuffed panda bear and whispers conspiratorially “See that? That’s the last surviving member of the voodoo!” New song! That spawned a whole new career!

Personal circumstances can be fruitfully mined. My divorce spawned a new band, several albums and a fine set of bile filled vignettes – the nadir probably being ‘You Want Us To Remain Friends (I Want You To Die Of Cancer)’ – you can see why I generally go for ‘the amusing couplets’ these days. Like most/all country minded writers I can only mine the bad seams. Happy, chirpy songs are not in my remit. I have tried honestly. My most recent song started life as ‘You’re The One’. So far, so good but by the time I had reached the chorus it had transformed itself into ‘I Shoulda Killed You When I Had The Chance’ . Hell what you gonna do?

So aye in summary, erm a bit more mechanical these days as I don’t get out as much, but inspiration can drop by without appointment if it’s of a mind.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

The late lamented Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh. As well as shaping some piano recordings such as my soundtrack to Sunday afternoon TV religious epics ‘Jesus Wept’ he introduced me, a man brought up on two minute punk songs to the concept of never ending hypnotic melodies. Not saying what we do now is hypnotic but the guitar solos can be never ending.

I would say that my influences are pretty much there to be heard. Neil Young, Green On Red, Steve Earle, Hank Williams. The other members obviously bring to bear their own influences (or baggage as I like to call it – they get free rein within reason). The ghost of Television certainly rears its head in the guitar solos and I’ve no doubt there are some unsavoury jazz moments going on when my back is turned.

I did record a Philip Glass homage/pastiche on the computer years ago (it had to be the computer – I can’t play 32 notes a second!!). However as I called it People In Philip Glass Houses I don’t imagine that passes the ‘wouldn’t be obvious test.’

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I always write to my voice although in my head it’s in tune and melodious. I’m aware that I’m probably going to hand vocal duties over to a female voice but I still generally present the lyrics from a male stand point (often a male serial killer right enough)

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

The songs are revised up until the point they’re presented to the band and once we’ve worked through them a few times with the odd tweak then they’re pretty much set in stone. A depressingly large number get binned by me before they get that far (honestly I do have standards). Early revisions are often due to my inability to remember what I’d previously played or not being able to count to eight in my head.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Nick Cave
Lou Reed
Steve Earle
Tomorrow it could be Chuck Prophet, Dan Stuart and Townes Van Zandt
Or Hank Williams or Johnny Cash oh hell you get the point

Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express’s next gig is probably the by invitation only Jefffest 2015. Their latest recorded offering is Night of the Living Trailer Trash, available on bandcamp.

For those of you who don’t know him, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, who are a whole lot more original than the name might suggest. Check them out over at the sister site to this one, and sign up to get a free download of one of the latest songs from the already-legendary #Tape 9….







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In my Shipyard of Songs

In my Shipyard of Songs at the moment, there are a whole order book of them at different stages of completion: some have only the most basic structures, the keel of melody and a few ribs of lyrics (I can see my lack of nautical knowledge getting me into trouble with this metaphor already); some well on the way to completion, with just one or two final touches needed: a trim to the sails, or a beefed-up outboard motor by way of extra guitar; some needing the barnacles scraped off and a new lick of paint before they’re seaworthy again.

Then there are one or two crafted, sitting around the edges of the Songyard, waiting for an owner. These are the ones that just don’t quite fit any of the collaborative projects for one reason or another, but which are, I think, seaworthy. What to do with them?

‘Somewhere You’re Out There’ is one of these. I still like the melody (so much so I worry I’ve subconsciously poached it from somewhere); and the lyrics – well, the lyrics mean something different to me now than when I first wrote them, let’s just say. You could apply them to different life situations, and I kind of like that.

However, the down side is there’s only me to sing these ones, so you have to put up with my less than perfect delivery. See what you think, and let me know. I’ll probably be doing a bit more of this in the coming months – I might even try to put something up once a month, whether it be original material, or a cover, and replace it the next month with something else.

Also coming up: some reflections on writing, music, and new business models; and I interview myself.

Diary of Festival Dad Aged 52 and 3/4: What Not to Wear (Again)

And so, for a second year, the Latitude tickets have been bought, the train tickets down booked, and the theoretical existence of a bus from Acle, Norfolk to Southwold, Suffolk having been proved in the sense that we know the Higgs-Boson does a circular of the Large Hadron Collider, except Weds. and Sun., when it terminates half way along.

Some things have changed. For a start, we’re coming straight from a week in a boat on the Norfolk Broads, hence the need for complex transportation arrangements. Second, ‘we,’ in the context of the Festival itself, will include the Redoubtable Mrs F on the Friday accompanying Daughter and Heiress and myself, although it’s been made clear that lengthy bouts of standing will not be tolerated, and a shady corner with a ready supply of chilled Sauvignon Blanc should at no times be more than twenty metres away. I suspect that such conditions might be insupportable at T in the Park: Latitude, not so much.

A brief glance at the line up confirms the usual mix of people I’ve seen on Jools once, people I know I should’ve heard of, and people I didn’t even know I should’ve heard of, but Daughter and Heiress should be able to raise awareness levels between now and then. As we’re going the Friday and Saturday only, we will eschew the pleasure of Noel Gallagher and his Angry Birds on the Sunday, but I am looking forward to King Creosote, Benjamin Booker, Laura Marling, and the Vaccines, in no particular order.

But now, friends, a confession, for I have sinned. I was down in Kirkcaldy by myself, Kirkcaldy being the only town close by that hosts that emporium of dubious sartorial delights, TK Maxx, and I coveted a Festival Shirt. And because I went there on my own, things went a bit further than coveting.

For those of you that don’t know the shop, TK Maxx sells soi-disant ‘designer’ clothing at so-called ‘discount’ prices. There was a tv ‘expose’ of their methods recently, which revealed that – shock horror! some of the original prices weren’t all that high in the first place, and some of their stuff isn’t even by proper designers, whatever that means: as if we didn’t all have the necessary savvy to work out that this particular expression of terminal-stages mercantile capitalism wasn’t essentially a game where you balance the true value of the clothing item on the fulcrum of how much you want it and how much it would really cost, and see which way it tips as, somewhere across the world, the poor bozo that made it gets the local currency equivalent of half a groat for his or her pains.

Anyhoo, the thing is, normally the distaff side are there to SUPERVISE me in TK Maxx, by which I mean they spend 30 seconds looking at the downstairs section (not a euphemism: that’s where the women’s clothes are) before materialising to hover over me while I try to sift through the odd assortment of menswear in the hope of finding something I fancy, TK Maxx adopting the random jumble sale from hell approach to displaying what’s on offer.

But this time, dear reader, they weren’t there. And I kind of went for it. Now even I think I’ve gone too far: but you know what it’s like. Can’t back down on these matters. Got to show them who’s boss, and all that. Haven’t you?


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More from the songwriters on songwriting series soon, I hope.





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