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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