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Culture: In the right Frame of mind

from Sunday Times, Scotland edition - 15 May, 2005
by Mary Braid

The former front man of the 1980s group Aztec Camera is happy to indulge his fans' nostalgic desires, finds Mary Braid

At a quiet table, at the back of a Pizza Express in west London, Roddy Frame, who led the hit 1980s Glasgow band, Aztec Camera, is talking about the kind of show he puts on these days.

Making an appearance at this month's Burns an' a' That festival in Ayr and currently performing at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in Soho, London, Frame says he is trying out some new compositions from a forthcoming album on his audiences. You want to groan - not another artiste refusing to romp through the old hits that the paying public have actually come to hear. Frame, however, isn't that pretentious. The fact that he chose to meet in Pizza Express should have given that away.

No, Frame, who founded, fronted and began writing the songs for Aztec Camera when he was a precocious 17-year-old, may get up on stage less often now but when he does, he doesn't neglect old anthems such as Oblivious and Somewhere in My Heart. And he doesn't turn his nose up at talking about the early 1980s when he was the undisputed wunderkind of pop.

"I love nostalgia," he laughs. "To me it's self-indulgent to just play a lot of new songs. I would be so pissed off if I went to see someone and they didn't play what I had come to hear."

In Frame - small, slight and boyish, somehow, at 40 - you can still see the teenager who emerged, eye shadowed to hell, as a pure pop sensation from East Kilbride, of all places. Back then it was Frame and his East Kilbride pals, Campbell Owens and David Mulholland. "David was the best drummer in town and Campbell was the best bass player," says Frame. His fellow band members didn't last long, but though he doesn't keep in touch with Mulholland, he still knows Owens, who is in Glasgow lecturing about the music business.

He left Scotland in the early 1980s to move to London, and the Burns festival appearance will mark one of his rare trips north. "My mum and dad have passed on and I have just one sister in East Kilbride," he says by way of explanation. "And anyway most of my friends moved down here."

Those friends include Edwyn Collins, the former Orange Juice front man and one of the founders of the now-defunct independent Glasgow label, Postcard Records, which was first to sign up Aztec. Collins, 44, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in February and is still in a pretty bad way. "I went to see him just the other day," says Frame, indicating with a sweep of his hand that Collins has lost feeling in one side of his body. "We're just looking to the positive."

Frame and Collins both moved to London to sign for big labels. Frame volunteers that in London pop success gradually "slipped away", though he enjoyed two revivals. The second gave him his biggest hit, Somewhere in My Heart. A couple of years ago Virgin radio listeners voted the song the best to have come out of Glasgow, ahead of offerings from Travis, Belle and Sebastian, Primal Scream and Simple Minds. Frame marvels that Scots still see him as one of their own when he has been away for so long.

There are plenty who think Frame - once hailed as the best young songwriter to have emerged in Britain since Elvis Costello - never really received the recognition he deserved. Perhaps he is an underachiever? Or was he, like many others before and since, simply shafted by the music industry? Neither, it seems. Instead Frame sees Aztec Camera's failure to capitalise in the context of the times. First, he says, you have to understand that the band - and its contemporaries like Orange Juice and Scritti Politti (his personal 1980s favourites) - were a reaction against the dark, post-punk era that produced bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division.

"We were about reclaiming pop," he says. "It was about asserting that a Supremes song was as good as one by Lou Reed. It was about appreciating pop for what it was." Looking back to the clean-cut, poppy 1960s for inspiration, Aztec et al unashamedly sold themselves as pure pop bands, and were warmly welcomed by the big labels in London after the spit-drenched, foul-mouthed punk years.

The trouble was that when Aztec Camera, Orange Juice and the rest left their small independent labels to engage with the mainstream music business, they turned out to be less malleable than the big labels had expected. Frame and others found that they didn't want to do candyfloss pop after all.

It would be easy for Frame to play the tortured artist, ground down by the nasty big music business, but he doesn't. In fact, he wishes he had not been so uncompromisingly idealistic. "I found a mentor in the MD at Warner Brothers but even he would say you have to play the game at least a bit," he says. Didn't Frame want to play? "I tried very hard to play the game," he says with a wry smile. "But I think when you are young and idealistic you overworry about little things.

"Looking back, I feel sorry for the difficulties I caused people by not delivering on time," he says. "I was a bit of a perfectionist. I wanted to make beautiful records and always under strict conditions - like this one had to be made in Wales or this one in New York."

This all makes it sound as if Frame is full of regrets. His last album Surf (2002) was full of songs about withered love which adds to a rather melancholic image. But the singer, who lives in a nearby mansion flat with his long-term girlfriend, is very philosophical about his pop career.

"Being a pop star was simply all I ever wanted," he says reflectively. "When I was just three I asked Santa for an electric guitar and amp. When I was 10, a friend of my dad's, Billy Bain, who played guitar in a social club band, was already letting me sit and strum behind the amp.

"I never had any music education, apart from Billy - he was a good man to pass on his knowledge to me - but I could hear a riff and just play it. Nobody I knew of my age could do that." And when Aztec made it big quickly, he rather took his success for granted.

He performs, not because he needs to (the 1980s hits keep him in clover) but because he likes it. "It's all I've ever done," he says. "I really don't think I have a choice. If I didn't still sing and play I think I would go mad. I feel better physically when I sing."

And these days, he reckons he almost has the old songwriting figured. He is far more productive than he was in the 1980s when he lived by the romantic notion that songs could not be created by regular, hard work but depended on nebulous, unpredictable inspiration. Writing is now a conscious daily activity and the songs come easier

What does feel good at 40, he admits, is knowing that your songs still have a place and millions of people still have tunes he wrote 20 years running round their brains. "It's a beautiful feeling," he admits.

"Even if it's not what I was aiming for at 17. Back then you just wanted everyone to think you were cool. These days, I'm just striving to be a decent bloke."  

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