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Musical Advent Calendar Day 10: Issac Brutal – Light in the Darkness

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Brutalism in full flow. Pic: Kenny Mackay

I have had so much fun with Mr Brutal and our bandmates this year. I don’t think Mark had any idea, twelve months ago, that he’d now have not one, but two albums to launch.

But he does – The Falcon has Landed, produced by his long-term sideman Graham Crawford, and Prostitutes, Junkies and Bums, produced by yours truly. Here’s the cover artwork:


I am absolutely delighted that some of my own songs have made it onto both albums, especially when our awesome lead singer, Emma, sings them instead of me! The track I’ve chosen, Light in the Darkness, whilst on the acoustic album with my production credit, also bears the mark of Graham’s skills in the studio, as half of it was recorded on his side of the Forth. I think probably my favourite of Mark’s songs, it’s one of the more reflective country moments of our country punk canon. The link takes you to the Bandcamp page:


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As ever at this point, I’m going to direct you to my favoured charity this year: the Red Cross Appeal for Myanmar. Just ask yourself: what would Isaac Brutal do?















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Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

In the lead up to Bruce Almighty, I hope to interview some of the guys n’ gals bringing you the noise on the night. We start with not one, not two, but three members of the band that backs the man we call The Boss, Isaac Brutal (pictured above): Graham Crawford, the band’s resident lead guitarist, producer and player of any instrument you throw at him; lead singer Emma Emz Gow; and on bass, the legend that is Murray Ramone…

How did you first meet Bruce Springsteen – what song, or album, was your first encounter with him?

Graham: Norman Rodger introduced me to Bruce Springsteen in 1980. He was a big fan and I was a fan of Norman’s band TV21. (Norman will also be performing on the night, with his band The Normans – Ed)

Murray: Born to Run in the 70’s, thanks to an older brother.

Emma: 1993/94, when I first saw the movie Philadelphia, the title track for which was written and performed by Bruce. Great movie, great soundtrack. I was just hitting my teens and finding my own taste in music at that point.

(Mr Ramone in action, at Jeffest5 this summer. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

You’re a band known for its own, unique, original material. What attracted you to doing a Springsteen tribute?

Graham: We will play any gig we are offered. I can’t remember the last time we said no.

Murray: We were asked. Personally I hate doing covers, but as I’m not the main writer in the band it’s always someone else’s song I’m adding bass to. I treat it the same way, think about what I’m going to do, not what the demo or in this case the original does.

Emma: We were invited to do it, but it was also an opportunity I jumped at, a) because the material is so different to what we as a band would normally do, and b) because I love a challenge and the idea of being The Boss for an evening appealed to me.

(The band in full flow at Henry’s Cellar Bar. Photo: Kenny Mackay)

Unfortunately, the E Street Band were unavailable on the 25th. Tell us a little about your band. Do the Springsteen songs fit your sound, or have you changed your usual sound (instrument wise or otherwise) to fit what you imagined for the songs?

Graham: There’s a lot of us in this band and we like to layer up the sound of the band in a similar way to the E Street Band. Playing other bands’ music gives us a chance to explore what we are all doing. When we first start on a project like this it sounds chaotic until we all work out how our own instruments fit in with the overall sound. Working out the details in someone else’s song is fun and keeps us interested. When we go back to our own songs we can add in what we have learned.

Murray: Any good song will work in any style.

Emma: Isaac Brutal are very much a country punk band with a penchant for bile black humour and great story telling. I guess great story telling is something we have in common with the Boss. We didn’t really change anything to fit the style of the songs though. We were lucky to have Kenny involved to help us pick, and play lead guitar for our set as he is a massive fan. But have we changed anything? No, not really. It’s just been an exercise in versatility for us.

(Mr Crawford, also rocking out at JF5. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

Any songs that didn’t make the cut? Any you wish you could do, but feel you can’t?

Graham: Kenny and Mark choose the songs. I am a hired hand just like members of the E Street Band.

Murray: I’d tackle something off Born in the USA. The songs would be much improved without the terrible bombastic production.

Emma: Kenny and Mark picked the set. I genuinely hadn’t heard any of these songs until a few months ago, but I have grown to love them. I wanted to do Thunder Road and was overruled. Probably a good thing in the end as we’ve had to work hard enough on the songs we did wind up going with and they are simpler. (Plus the harmonica solo’s tougher than you’d think – Ed.)

(Emma: Jeffest5 again. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

Finally, any news about your band you’d like to share with us – any albums/tours/interesting merch available on the night?

Graham: Not 1 but 2 albums in the can waiting to be released. Both are sounding very good and it is a fight to see which will be released first.

Emma: Our album The Falcon Has Landed is coming soon, the release of which will undoubtedly coincide with an album launch show early next year at some point (but don’t quote me on that). Also, Prostitutes, Junkies and Bums, an acoustic side project mostly by Mark and Andrew but featuring some work by myself, Graham and Stuart Munro is just about ready to go too. We may or may not have CDs available at the merch table….?


Brutal News

I’m delighted to announce that the first Isaac Brutal album to feature yours truly, Trailer Trash Apocalypse, is now available on Bandcamp. That noodling on the keyboard going on in the background? The occasional random stabs of piano, and that harmonica? Yep. For reasons that will become clearer in my next post, I’m particularly chuffed to be cast as a keyboard player of some sort. Fortunately, those ‘skills’ of mine aren’t likely to be tested in the battle conditions of a gig any time soon, as I get to retreat behind a guitar (with occasional harmonica) in the current live set.

My personal favourite of TTA, btw, is 4th of July.

Speaking of gigs, there’s a support slot for the Véloniños coming up on 4th March – FB event is here. Really looking forward to this, not just because the set features two of my songs, but mainly because things are sounding absolutely excellent in rehearsal. I’ve never played a gig at the Leith Depot before, but it looks good. Pictures, at least, will follow…

Meantime, work continues on the next Brutal album, which I dare to say is going to be awesome!

New Album Frenzy at Casa Ardross

Some reviews in for Songs in a Scottish Accent:

‘Everyone should listen to Andrew C Ferguson’s new album. Awesome down to earth Scots tunes. Well worth your time guys.’ Charlotte Halton

‘I can see the Springsteen and Dylan influences in the arrangements but that made it all the more enjoyable for me and the lyrics are real-life and insightful. I particularly liked ‘Never Forget’ which is far bolder than anything I would do.’ Norman Lamont

‘Poetic’ Kelly Brooks

‘Production is excellent… everything crystal clear. Musicianship top notch as well.’ Mark Allan

Ok, ok, so these aren’t ‘official’ like reviews, they’re nice things my mates have said about it. However, they are all talented musicians, so I must be getting something right!

Remember, I will send – or hand – you this album absolutely free, and all you have to do is donate something to a refugee charity (or have it on your conscience). There are suggestions on the album page, or there’s always good old Oxfam.

And, in case one album featuring me isn’t enough for you, another two are due along shortly!

First of all, as Venus Carmichael watchers will know, the first full Venus album is currently in post-production, and we’re racing to get it ready for our album launch on 14th December. The track listing will be:

Icarus Wings

All I Can Think Of Is You


Highway Tonight

Coming Around Again


Old School

Spider Arpeggio

Running Song

Rose Tattoo

What’s more, it features the beautiful singing voice of Kelly Brooks on it, rather than mine!

But that’s not all. While recording has started on its sequel, the Isaac Brutal album ‘Dawn of the Trailer Trash,’ featuring my, ahem, multi-instrumental skills, has been ready for some time now, and just needs the cover art nailed down. I can’t wait for this one either, as it features some really strong material in the classic Brutal mould.

Keep the dial here for more news…


First Bands and Badly-Judged Bandanas: Reflections on Lost in Music

I read Giles Smith’s Lost in Music recently: got it second hand in Leith Walk’s excellent music and bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare. A  journalist of some repute as well as, apparently, ghost writer for Tom Jones and Rod Stewart, Smith is the same age as me, so part of the appeal of his book was the bit about growing up and having your formative experiences in pop music filtered through that particular time period. Like me, he had older siblings,  whose record collections allowed access to a slightly more sophisticated set of tastes than, say, T Rex.

I also enjoyed his often extremely funny tales of first bands and the travails of wanting to be a pop star, only to find you and your best mates have neither the connections nor, necessarily, the talent to make it. Of course, part of the charm of the book is it’s related with typical British self-deprecation: Smith did, briefly, nearly make it with a band called Cleaners from Venus, being signed to RCA’s German division. (If you think that name’s dodgy, try those of Smith’s previous bands: Pony, and Orphans of Babylon).

Unfortunately for Smith, what should have been a triumphant promotional tour of Germany was slightly marred by the lead singer and leading light’s philosophical aversion to touring, leading to a tour with no lead singer. For an excellent  – and, looking back now, poignant – review of the book, go to John Peel’s piece in the Independent.

Anyways. It got me thinking about my own early forays into the world of music, all those years ago. I came late to guitar playing, after discouraging parent-inspired forays into violin and piano. At about sixteen, I first started painfully acquiring the muscle memory to play basic chords on my brother’s nylon-string guitar: this led to a birthday present of a Kiso-Suzuki J200 copy. I embarked on mastering this, fired by the conviction that I could be the Next Big Thing in Rock. Specifically, I saw myself becoming the New Dylan – this was the early Eighties, bear in mind, when the Old Dylan was finding Jesus and tearing up his back catalogue.

At about the age of nineteen, I responded to an advert in a music shop in Edinburgh, and the Rob Long Band was formed. The band, at least in that incarnation, consisted of just me and the eponymous Rob,who was, I think, the same age, possessed of a red Stratocaster, (before Tony Blair made such an instrument terminally uncool) and of immeasurably greater guitar-playing experience and ability than me. Rehearsing solidly in Rob’s student flat above the Southsider, we quickly assembled a set of what might now be described as ‘classic rock.’ I sang, played harmonica and rhythm guitar; Rob did all the clever guitar bits.

We did ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ because Rob could do the riff. I can’t remember if we did ‘Message in a Bottle,’ live, but he could do the riff for that, too. He really was a pretty good guitar player, looking back. There was one original song in the set, a jointly-penned effort with a twelve-bar blues structure. The lyrics were something about Maggie Thatcher and nuclear war, which back then was about as original as using a twelve-bar blues structure for the music.

Our first – and in many ways best – gig was in the University Union in Chambers Street. All our friends came along to cheer: the folk in the flat below Rob’s, who had had to endure the solid rehearsals, came along to boo. I dedicated ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to them: not a Judas moment, exactly, but it did shut them up for the full five minutes it took for all four verses plus verse-long harmonica solo. I also encountered my first example of the live-performance brain freeze known as Temporary Fretboard Amnesia, making a complete bourach of my one guitar solo (Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here.’)

In retrospect, we must have been pretty awful. Rob could have been Eric Bloody Clapton for all it mattered: my guitar playing was basic to say the least, and I had home-schooled myself in the Dylan/Mark Knopfler nasal whine, to the extent that it was pretty much croak-perfect. But our friends were kind, and most of them weren’t in bands so maybe didn’t know any better, so the long march to musical stardom wasn’t stopped in its tracks then and there.

For our second, and, in many ways, worst gig, Rob enlisted a bass player pal, one Andy Robb. I think we had one rehearsal with him before unleashing ourselves on the unsuspecting punters in Sneaky Pete’s in the Cowgate. However, one rehearsal was quite obviously going to be enough for Andy, who was one of that breed of musician you meet from time to time in bands: the self-proclaimed virtuoso. Andy played double bass in the Uni orchestra, didn’t you know, so he was basically doing us (or, at least Rob) a Massive Favour by slumming it in the Rob Long Band.

Encouraged by the band’s two-gig longevity, I splashed out on some performance gear. This took the form of a bandana (I know, but I repeat, this was the early Eighties) which was white, but with a Japanese – style rising sun in the middle. With this and (if I remember right) a grandad shirt with vertical stripes, I was good to go stage-gear wise, I felt.

Needless to say the gig didn’t live up to the lead singer’s outfit. Most of the punters moved away to the other bar as soon as we got started; Andy chose to tell me half way through that I wasn’t playing in time with him (it couldn’t have been, of course, that he wasn’t playing in time with me). There were no encores.

After we finished, a girl I vaguely knew came up to me.

‘What’s that on your head?’

‘It’s a bandana. It’s got the Rising Sun on it.’

‘Oh, right. I thought it was a bandage and you’d cut yourself.’

That summed it up, really. There was no third gig. I stayed friendly with Rob, but I suppose we both realised we needed something more than a virtuoso bass player to get us to the next level.

After that, my musical career kind of went on the back burner. I rehearsed with another band at Uni, but the other guitarist was too spaced out for us ever to get a gig organised. After I started work there was a disastrous solo gig in the Lundin Links Hotel when the receptionist, as part of the deal that got me the gig in the first place, got to play her own set first, which basically consisted of my set list, for reasons which I have never quite managed to work out.

There were the rehearsals with a couple of blokes in Dundee who mainly wanted to play Whitesnake covers. There were the couple of rehearsals with a friend of a friend, also in Dundee, which came to an end when he brought in another self-proclaimed virtuoso, a guitarist, who calmly announced that neither I nor Barry, the friend of a friend, were good enough guitarists to make it as a duo (Barry, when I last heard, is still playing and still gigging. I do hope the self-proclaimed virtuoso isn’t in the band).

Then, other than solo home noodling, nothing for years. I threw my creative energies into writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, with mixed success. It wasn’t until 2008, when I formed Tribute to Venus Carmichael with Kelly as a musical interlude in the Free Fringe spoken word gigs I did that year, that the fire was lit under my musical muse again. Another key collaboration was at the Book Festival Unbound gig in 2010, when I did a spoken word and music number with Kelly, Charlotte Halton on sax, and one Mark Allan, my future Isaac Brutal band leader, on the other guitar.

What would the nineteen year old me make of how things have turned out? He’d probably be pretty disappointed my main source of income isn’t as the new Dylan, if not exactly surprised. (He’d be secretly impressed, I reckon, I married a beautiful woman and have stayed married to her.) Would he settle for being in two bands with fantastic people, with songwriting duties in both? An album from each as well as a self-produced solo album coming out in the next few months, not to mention the novel?

No idea. The nineteen year old me was terribly ambitious about his creative endeavours.

Would he want me to write a song titled Fuck Off Andy Robb?

Yes. Yes, I think he would.

Image result for mark knopfler

Incidentally, if any of you have war stories of disastrous band relationships or gigs, feel free to contribute – I might write a song based on them!








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Songs in a Scottish Accent 1: Why I came to love Country

I had a strange epiphany on Thursday around 7 am, as I crested the rise before Falkland and saw the Howe of Fife laid out in all its glory, while Lucinda Williams growled in my ear about West Memphis: it was 5 years almost to the day since I began to appreciate country music for the first time.

Growing up in the Seventies, country seemed pretty much for old people, or at least the kind of people that would go along to country and western clubs, and/or learn to do line dancing. The stuff that came out of Nashville was slick, polished, schmaltzy, and seemingly devoid of any rebellious spirit. The only thing I knew about Willie Nelson was he featured in a pretty good joke (the punchline being: ‘well, I don’t know about the other two, but the one in the middle looks like Willie Nelson…’ if you haven’t heard it, don’t ask).

My musical tastes were pretty much guitar based rock, from Dylan and Springsteen through to punk and new wave. Anything with that whiny pedal steel noise just made me think of middle aged folks wearing checked shirts and Stetsons, trying to pretend they were from Louisiana rather than Lenzie.

Then, in 2011, I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to a conference in Nashville. We flew out the day after the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, and had a whale of a time. Seriously, all the good stories you’ve heard about Nashville was true. There was even a Gibson Guitars bus.

Actually, a lot of the stuff I heard in the bars on Lower Broadway was rock, or soul standards, but I heard enough of the real deal to begin to understand what country really was: one of the essential strands of DNA in Americana, that had gone on to influence all the music I had always liked. I read recently Springsteen saying that, before writing the songs that went into the River, he listened to Hank Williams, because he wanted to get that honesty of storytelling into the voice he used for the album. Three chords and the truth, indeed.

Back to that epiphany above Falkland, though. Although I’ve never been a massive fan of Scottish folk music, it did occur to me that it was strange, really, that all of my musical taste is really about American folk music instead – in other words, blues, country, gospel, and all those other DNA strands. Maybe it’s as simple as I consider myself more urban than rural, and Scottish folk seems to me much more rooted in its rural origins – and yes, I understand how Scottish folk has gone into the primordial soup from which Americana’s emerged, having danced a pas-de-basque (the Scottish country dance step all Scottish schoolchildren get taught, as part of an excruciatingly hormonal rite of passage in the school gym – again, if you’re not Scottish, don’t ask) to a bluegrass band when I was in Nashville.

Whatever. What I do know is that artists like Lucinda Williams and, more recently, Jason Isbell, have got me interested in country in a way I wasn’t before. One of the songs we’re doing at the gig on Saturday (Venus + Isaac: FB event here), ‘Death in Venice,’ is definitely country-influenced. I can even imagine a bit of subtle pedal steel on ‘Highway Tonight,’ one of the Venus Carmichael standards.

Of course this may just be that I am now middle aged. It is true that I am often seen wearing a check shirt; and my band leader for the second half of the gig, Mr Brutal, has been recently pictured wearing what could be described as a Stetson. But I’m not expecting any line dancing. Not to the whale song piece, at least.

And no matter how country I get, I’ll be trying my best to sing in a Scottish accent….














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You’ll Be Hearing From Me (Again)

So I have two bits of news. Firstly, my novel of lawyers behaving very badly indeed, which may or may not now be called Buddha Belly, is to be published by Thunderpoint. I received the preliminary edits back from Seonaid yesterday, none of which look too scary. I’m actually looking forward to nailing down the final version.

What’s it about? Property lawyer Simon English has been detailed to look after a client, Jimmy Ahmed, during a night on the town. All seems to have gone well until he wakes up hungover, with a blurred memory of the night before, and Jimmy dead, naked, and in the bath. With his toe stuck up the tap.

To solve the mystery of what happened that night, he has to work with Karen Clamp, a conspiracy theorist from a run-down Edinburgh scheme, who has her own reasons for solving the mystery; cope with his senior partner, aka The Rottweiler; decide which authorities you call, exactly, when your client’s dead with his toe stuck up the tap, and whether you can trust them when you arrive. It’s full of sex, swearing, and Sir Walter Scott references, and I reckon you’ll love it.

I had a foretaste of the kind of star author treatment I can expect (the book’s due out next year some time) last Thursday, when I went to the lovely Suzanne D’Corsay‘s launch of The Bonnie Road, from the same publisher, at Waterstone’s, St Andrews (hence the earlier post about driving home far too fast to the music of Foals, in case you hadn’t worked out the location.) Suzanne and her family, as well as Seonaid, made me feel very welcome: her book is an intriguing tale of witchcraft in late Seventies St Andrews, and I can’t wait to read it.

The second bit of news is, at least for me, just as exciting: meet the new keyboard/harmonica player for the legendary Isaac Brutal band! I’ve known Mark and Kenny, in particular, for a few years now, and collaborated with them on a few music and spoken word projects, but it feels like the next level altogether to be asked to join the band … incidentally, Tribute to Venus Carmichael fans, don’t worry – you’ll be hearing more from her too, soon I hope.

In many ways, it feels like full circle for me. I played in bands at university (not very successful ones, mind) and it was partly an accident of geography – not much in the way of a music scene in central Fife, I’m afraid – that cut me off from doing anything more ambitious than living room guitar for many years, and shoved me sideways towards writing. It was only through the spoken word scene that I began to reconnect with music again, first through the Venus Carmichael project with Kelly, and then other stuff with Mark, Kenny and others. I’m gutted to be missing their next gig by being in Spain – more details soon – but, in the meantime, have dialled in my first stab at a keyboard track for their forthcoming album. The rough mixes are sounding good…

Next up, news of a forthcoming Leonard Cohen tribute night, which will feature Isaac Brutal Acoustic.






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Songwriters on Songwriting: Kenny Mackay

Concluding (for now) my series of interviews with songwriters of my acquaintance, Here’s Kenny Mackay, of Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express fame. Kenny tends to have his own take on stuff…

Incidentally, if you are a songwriter who thinks your answers to these questions would be illuminating, thought-provoking or just plain out there, get in touch.

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

I’m possibly sneaking in here under false pretences as I don’t think I’d really call myself a songwriter. The majority of my ‘songs’ are instrumental and any that do have lyrics, the lyrics are either written by someone else, or co-written with someone else. If it’s the former, I have zero interest in what they are and they’re basically just something that’s in there to stop the listener getting bored between the guitar solos! If it’s the latter, I’ll obviously take a bit more interest, but the lyrics are still secondary to the music.

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 have two methods of composition. The first is a fairly standard knock it out on the guitar. The second is probably a bit less conventional in that I use a PS2 and Music 3000, which is a sample based music production ‘game’. Originally I had a Playstation and Music 2000, but I upgraded! Unfortunately Music 3000 isn’t a new version of the Codemasters classic, it just happens to have a similar name. But it was only 1p from Amazon! I know, Music 2000 will also work on the PS2, but hey, it’s not the 90s any more! But for both methods it’s the same building block philosophy – start off with one riff you like and keep piling things on top of it until it explodes!!!

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?

‘Out there in the ether’? Sounds like it was something they might have heard on the radio and ‘appropriated’! [Yeah, I know. It’s a worry though, isn’t it? ACF] Maybe for a singer-songwriter with a guitar or piano, but for me it’s like one of those 2000 piece jigsaw puzzles of baked beans. Most of the bits look pretty much the same, but they all have a correct position in the puzzle. For me, all the various elements of a song have to go in the correct place. And that takes time. Sometimes a LOT of time! And I only have one rule: if it sounds like it could be done by Oasis, then it’s straight in the bin!

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

Not sure I really have any fans. Who even heard, say, Dwarf Factory‘s Doom Stalks Your Boogaloo or Lunar Conquistadors‘ Hotwired Into The Cosmos? (Both great albums, possibly due a re-release?) But I think all my influences are glaringly obvious – minimalism, free jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, Japanese noise merchants, post rock, electric Miles, the Paisley Underground, Neil Young, Television, Springsteen, Tom Petty, black metal!!! I had a spell in hospital in 2001, and about the only radio station I could get a decent reception on was Beat 106. Now maybe it was the drugs, but I started listening to a lot of dancey type music and I really got into trance! So I’ll go with Sven Vath! Although now I mention it, that sounds glaringly obvious too!

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 can fairly safely say that whenever I have written lyrics, the potential singer plays no part in it! As long as they work on the page, then that works for me! And if anyone’s looking for me to write lyrics for them, then they should probably call it a day!

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

I think of everything as a work in progress. But then I tend to favour some degree of improvisation, particularly during live performances. That’s the jazz influence! However, most musicians are more like classical musicians, preferring all the bits to be in exactly the same place as they were last time and will be the next time. Things get too loose, they get edgy! And edgy musicians are a liability! Although I’m sure they’d say the same about me!

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

For all the weird shit music I listen to, it’s hard to go outside the conventional idea of the songwriter. A solo artist who always gets lone billing, or maybe even with a band – Someone and the Somethings. Maybe because unless it’s one of those obvious guys (and gals), you don’t really know who’s a songwriter. There might also be other factors. My favourite band of all time is Television. Tom Verlaine wrote all the songs. But Tom Verlaine’s solo work is slightly less spectacular. So we have to assume that it’s not the songs that were great, it’s the band that made them great. And come on, in this age of CD booklets with tiny writing and digital downloads, who really knows who wrote what! What was the question again? Three songwriters. 1) Bruce Springsteen. 2) Neil Young. 3) Don van Vliet. I did seriously consider putting Nick Cave in there, but strip out The Bad Seeds and I’m not sure if those songs are going to sound so good. And apparently every single note of every single Captain Beefheart record was written down. Seems it’s easier to go outside the conventional idea of the songwriter than I thought!

Kenny’s work features on the latest Isaac Brutal CD, Night of the Living Trailer Trash. He also features in one of my own favourite live recordings of recent years:



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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The Week of Cave Begins

To celebrate the start of Nick Cave week, an invention of my own which culminates, of course, with Cry of the Cave People on Saturday 5th October at the Citrus, here’s a short interview with Kenny Mackay, lead guitarist of Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express:
What attracted you to the idea of a Nick Cave covers night?
Some bloke asked us in a pub.  [ACF note: that was me.] Seemed like a good idea at the time! [ACF note: it seemed like a good idea to him even after the first pint!]

How did you come to choose your set? Was it your favourite Cave songs of all time, the ones you reckoned were most playable, or a mixture of both?

Most of the band have absolutely no interest in Nick Cave.  It was a case of a) can we play it, b) can the non-Cave acolytes pick it up relatively quickly and painlessly and c) would we absolutely not fuck it up!

Cave uses some pretty interesting instrumentation at times. Did that inspire you to change things up from your usual sound?

No.  We’ve already got a mandolin player!

Any particular challenges in rehearsal? Were there any songs you had to leave on the cutting room floor?

There She Goes My Beautiful World.  It was totally unsingable.  There was also a plan to have a go at Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart, but that never got anywhere.  And Sonny’s Burning would probably been a step too far for our drummer!

Have you something special up your sleeve for your performance, or would you have to kill us after you tell us?

Two of the songs don’t have a guitar solo.  That’s groundbreaking for us!

Finally, do you have any particular Nick Cave anecdotes you’d like to share, either from one of his gigs or otherwise?

First time I saw Nick Cave was when the Birthday Party played the Nite Club in 1981.  Those were the days when we had an Edinburgh Rock Festival and Richard Strange had brought his Cabaret Futura club up to Edinburgh for a week.  Great gig.  Strange was the support for all the bands and he was on great form too.  The second time I saw Nick Cave was in Cockburn Street the next day, with Rowland S Howard and (my memory likes to pretend) the paunchy cowboy himself, Tracy Pew!  But I suspect it was just Phil Calvert!  Either way no one paid them the slightest attention because no one knew who they were!
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