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Roddy Frame
from Jamming! Magazine, October 1984

As 'Boy Wonder' Roddy Frame leaves his teens and delivers his first professionally- produced album, Bruce Dessau joins him to discuss the 'Meaning of Life' and other less well-trodden cliches.

The wonderful world of music has heard little from Aztec Camera during 1984. The beginning of the year saw "Oblivious" finally in the charts, courtesy of WEA, the band's new label, and Roddy Frame's face firmly at home in the pop media. But, unlike most opportunistically minded record companies and bands, there was neither a swift follow up single, or a swift repromotion of one of the group's earlier classic independent '45's. Product-wise, all has been quiet for the last nine months, while the band toured America with Elvis Costello and started to make inroads over there.

Now, however, the silence is broken, with the new single, "All I Need is Everything" and an album 'Knife', produced by Mark Knopfler. And, keen to find out more about the heart behind the hits, as well as the man behind the music, I met up with Roddy Frame over coffee somewhere in the middle of London...

The first thing one notices when listening to "All I Need is Everything" is how the sound, although essentially unaltered, has become so much more expansive. There are still those snatches of almost flamenco guitar, but there is also the fluid fusion of disco & melodic soul. So I asked Roddy about the creation of the single and the album on which it appears in an extended form...

"I wrote the single back in March when I was in America. Firstly I had the tune and three chords, and then after a long struggle I managed to get the lyrics to it. It is an unusual choice for a single, because unlike our previous singles (and most pop singles) it doesn't have a recurrent chorus at all. Most of the album was written in America in the early part of the year after we had finished the Costello tour. We haven't played in the U.K. since Glasgow last Christmas, because after the tour we didn't really feel like playing live, and I just wanted to write and see a bit of America."

It all sounds like a rather civilised way of going about things. Wasn't there any pressure on you from WEA to capitalise on the success of "Oblivious"?

"No, we have a very good relationship with WEA," (strangely pronounced 'wier'), "so that we don't actually have to do anything. Too many bands get signed up to big record companies which they see as this big corporate father image, or phallus image or something. But it certainly isn't like that with us and WEA. For instance, when we first signed up there was no pressure on us for a single. They saw "Oblivious" as a great single that had not had the exposure and were quite happy to repromote that, without demanding new songs. And they have given us more than enough time to record the new album."

I for one was surprised to hear that it was being produced by Mark Knopfler; was the decision made for you by WEA?

"Mark Knopfler was totally my choice - doesn't it seem like my choice!?" (Roddy rocks backwards and forwards in his chair laughing, in a combination of surprise and indignation!!)

Well, he seems to go against the grain as far as Aztec Camera's first album was concerned...

"I think he gets very good guitar sounds, and has done some particularly good arrangements in the past, particularly for films." ('Local Hero' is his most notable to date, and he has also done the soundtrack for the new Bill Forsyth film, 'Comfort and Joy'.) "I liked the idea of him producing because I wanted to do longer songs, with musical themes. The title track, "Knife", is over nine minutes long, and it was good to have someone of his experience there to help work things out. The album also contains a version of the single with an instrumental conversation between a classic guitar and a synthesizer."

You've still retained that distinctive flamenco touch in your guitar playing...

"Yeah, I can't help playing like that. Campbell says I'm just like a Gyppo!! But I've never had any training, it's just the way I taught myself to play, and it's still there. I'm sorry, I can't help it!"

Don't apologise. I like it, I like it...

"But even where there are synthesizers which make noises you couldn't get from anything but very modern synthesizers, the guitar sound is still the same. I did not try to change it to fit in with the more modern ideas."

So what kind of differences were there in the recording of this album and the first?

"This one was much more relaxed, and also took much longer because we wanted to get the best possible drum, vocal and bass tracks."

Is Malcolm Ross a permanent member of the band now?

"Yeah, he's a great guitarist and I've known him since the Postcard days and now he is actually in my band! It's funny because he has played in the three classic Postcard bands, Josef K, Orange Juice and now us."

Reminiscing on the sound of young Scotland inevitably took the conversation round to the latest of the young pretenders, The Bluebells, who I couldn't help thinking have copped numerous aspects from my interviewee, not to mention his sleeve designer... I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought he was hearing the new Aztec single when he heard the opening lines of "I'm Falling". So I asked Roddy if he thought The Bluebells had capitalised on his absence.

"Well, people have commented on the similarity to me since I've been back from America, but I can't really see it at all. I used to know them quite well a few years ago, and I am sure they are not intentionally trying to sound like us, although bands like The Bluebells and The Pastels certainly owe a great debt to Postcard, for at least drawing attention to the Scottish music scene. Frankly The Bluebells seem a bit silly to me, an Eighties equivalent of The Monkees in the way they've been manufactured. Still, I suppose they have manufactured themselves, rather than the record company doing it for them, which seems to be the difference between sixties and eighties pop. But maybe at last the big labels have latched onto the Postcard thing and are trying to exploit it now. They all seem to want that funny artwork anyhow..."

What about The Smiths? Don't you think that they have acheived on Rough Trade what you felt you had to go to a major label for, namely to be commercially successful. Why did you sign to WEA?

"Basically to do what I have done with this album. Financially we did not have the facilities we have now." (Modesty forbade him to mention that the deal also gave Rough Trade a slice of their WEA royalties and helped them out of considerable financial straits.) "I don't see what you gain on a small label. You only make life more difficult for yourself. The independent idea is very strange. What exactly are you independent of? You are competing with the big labels and often using their distribution networks, but miss out on not having the money to back it up. We are really happy with our deal, we have plenty of freedom and total artistic control, and being on a big label means there are people to organise things for you so that you can concentrate on more important things like writing."

You started out in the business very early on, recording your first single "Just Like Gold" the night before your seventeenth birthday, the kind of age when most people are just buying their first singles. And you seemed to become jaded by the business at an equally early age. How do you feel about it these days?

"Yeah, for about four years I was sixteen according to the press, which I did not like, and then I got fed up with people talking about us in the same context as Haircut 100, which was not the idea at all."

What about this incident of Heyward seeing you wearing jodhpurs and appearing on TOTP wearing jodhpurs the following week?

Roddy laughs heartily. "Haircut 100 were just crap - real throwaway pop, like The Bluebells and Howard Jones. These days things just aren't built to last."

Just like pop before punk?

"Yeah, only worse, this is real recession music, just completely trivial. It's not even worth talking about..."

Roddy Frame seems to have a point there. Yet in comparison to Jones and Kershaw, Haircut 100 and ABC were bloody artistic genii. There is a line on "Down the Dip" (from 'High Land, Hard Rain') which goes "Hanging with the hollow men who never got the groove," and I thought that this could have been describing precisely Jones and Kershaw, and then realised that they were not around then. So I asked if it could apply to them, and if not, whom?

"'Hollow Men' was a phrase I borrowed from T.S. Elliot's poem of the same name to conjure up this image of bleakness, for those who have some kind of spiritual or religious thing lacking. Those two are just too insignificant. I was thinking more in terms of someone who does have some sort of validity and spirit which they totally lack. Then try to act so sincere and just come over as stupid. How can you want to be taken seriously and at the same time call your album 'Human's Lib'? Come on!" (giggles.) "At least in the early seventies, pop bands didn't talk about the meaning of life, that was left to Yes and Genesis, the 'serious' bands..."

So what about your new album with its eight extended tracks and themes. That sounds decidedly mid-seventies progressive?

"The themes are basically musical themes, rather than being philosophical, or pseudo- philosophical. It will be different to the first album, but I hope people will still appreciate it. I still want to bring out singles, "Still on Fire" on the album would make an excellent single."

On the first album, you made no secret of the fact that you had stolen the intro of "Walk Out to Winter" from "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". Are there any more honest plagiarisms on the new album, and why do you do this?

"Yeah, there are some, because there are some chord structures that we think we can use better than they have been. The opening chords of "All I Need is Everything" are from Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross". I think it is a kind of nod of the head, or tap of the hat, to the writer rather than stealing it on the quiet. I'm a great fan of Love and have used some of their stuff as well. It is strange because I first heard them about seven years ago, but only really got to like them recently."

Roddy Frame was fortunate to become involved in making music at such an early age that he has never had to consider working in a more 'conventional' situation. However, there is no escaping the fact that even the music business has its tedious, office type side to it. So how does he cope with that aspect?

"Fortunately I'm in a position now where others do the organising for me. Besides, I don't think I could ever work in the kind of office situation with people I didn't like without telling them so. It's absurd. I don't think I would last very long in an ordinary kind of job. It's much easier being a pop star!"

So I gather you are against the kind of capitalist system we are being submitted to at the moment?

"The whole f***ing ratrace seems horrible. But I think that maybe capitalism is in its death throws at the moment. It is quite an encouraging sign to see ordinary people pelting the police with rocks."

You don't seem to have taken a particularly political stance at a time when bands are going out of their way to declare the support for movements such as CND and Save The GLC?

Politics simply means knowing what is wrong and what is right, simply to see what is ideological in the light of what we see round us. Like the miner's strike, it is worrying that most people don't seem to be concerned about it."

Well, you haven't played any benefits for it. Would you?

"Yeah, of course, but I don't know how much good that would do. The best thing about it would be to demonstrate where I stand, which is what anyone in the public eye should do. I mean, Howard Jones calls his album 'Human's Lib', but what has he ever done for humanity?

"Besides, I hope it's always been clear where I stand from what I do. I am a born Socialist simply because I know what is right and wrong. Politics is not like supporting Celtic or Rangers. There is only ONE right side, and that is socialism.

"It would be nice to see the whole world moving to the Left. I'd really like to visit Russia, which apart from everything else has some really great architecture. (!) I would not totally defend their system, but it did seem to start out from a better set of values than ours, or the American Constitution. The idea of Free Enterprise is a complete farce. Someone setting up a factory and having ten people working him who makes five pounds a week while he makes ten pounds a week is totally wrong. The wealth of a country should never become the sole property of a minority of individuals."

At this point Roddy laughs, as if at the idea that anyone could possibly hold that view and still be both sane and human.

"I don't think there is anything naive in wishing for this, or things such as equality of educational opportunities and no more private medicine. Capitalism just seems like a complete celebration of wrongdoing..."

Have you heard about the more extreme groups of Anarchists who produce papers such as 'Class War' and openly encourage violence, saying that Thatcher should be assassinated?

"They're taking their time about it then aren't they?"

But do you think that is going too far?

"No, but I don't think it would make that much difference now. Britain is just a subdivision of American Corporations. The new Conservative leader would just be another puppet of Reagan."

It would be easy to pick holes in Roddy Frame's political views, but at the same time, he does have some serious opinions when most pop stars are saying how much they love the Royal Family, looking for the next tax haven to record their album and swanning around with Hordes of Hooray Henrys and dippy debs. But besides this, I wanted to find out more about Roddy Frame the person rather than Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera. So, tell me, what interests do you have outside of music and politics?

"I read a lot, particularly this guy Colin Wilson, who has written all sorts of wierd stuff about philosophy and the Occult. He gets some really good ideas across even in the cheapest glossy paperbacks. You always know where he stands, even when he is writing about mad sex murderers. He used to have a very sensible romantic viewpoint, but lately he seems to have turned into an old Tory!! It seems to get them all in the end, but the greatest thing about him was that he was Working Class. He wrote his first book, 'The Outsider', when he was working in an all night cafe in the Haymarket and sleeping in a polythene bag on Hampstead Heath during the day."

Would you have liked to have been through that kind of discomfort for your art?

"No, and he didn't like it either. He spent his early days in miserable poverty and was glad when he could get publishing deals and advances. I don't really think this idea of the artist having to starve to produce his best work really holds..."

Have you written any prose or poetry yourself?

"I've written bits of poetry, but I feel much happier when I have a guitar in my hand!!"

With Colin Wilson's own sceptical views about the supernatural, I ask if Roddy Frame believes in God?

"There must be some kind of blind force, or life force, in evolution, which I suppose you can utilise - a feeling of goodness that flows through everything and everybody. I do believe all beings are basically good, rather than everyone being born with a clean slate to be bad or good in life. Whether there is a God in the Christian sense I don't know, there are certainly a lot of things that are difficult to pin down scientifically, like ghosts. Some things are just impossible to explain without turning to the supernatural for an explanation."

So, you are already a veteran at twenty, how do you see the future? What about Roddy Frame at thirty?

"It will be nice to be older, because hopefully it means that I shall be wiser, and be able to answer some of the questions I can't answer today. But as for having had more experiences, for most people, they just have more experiences of the same things and end up just taking a load of bull****. I hope I never get like that. I don't know really, I think the people that end up as nobs were all nobs at school, at least judging from the people at my school: they started off badly and never got better! I didn't have many friends at school, I was probably a bit much of the loner, typical intellectual artistic type. I kept well away from team games."

Do you mix much outside the band?

"Not really, they are all in London at the moment and are the only people I see when I am here."

Do you still go to concerts yourself?

"I went to see The Go Betweens the other night and they were great. I listen to a lot of other music, for the simple reason that I enjoy hearing say, The Associates or Scritti Politti singles. You must not ever lose sight of that fact, or you can't ever enjoy music. It doesn't matter what label it is on, or how much money has been spent on the production; if it makes you happy when you hear it, then that is all that really matters."

Green seems to have gone to incredible lengths to have a hit single. Do you think he has kept his integrity, and how important is having a hit single to you?

"I don't think he has sold out at all, and if anything he has raised his standards, spending two weeks to get the vocals right, in order to have a hit. Of course it is important to have successful records because I want people to hear my songs. I hope this doesn't sound too pompous, but I think my songs enhance peoples' lives more than Howard Jones'. Similarly, I would rather play to a thousand people than a hundred."

Personally, I am inclined to think that maybe Roddy Frame overestimates the intelligence of most of the record buying public, which is why they lap up Jones and Kershaw by the bucketload. To my mind, Aztec Camera will always appear to the more discerning punter, because not only do they want to be taken seriously, but they are serious, which doesn't make for world-wide pop stars.

As for Mr. Frame, a man with a nervous smile and a strong handshake, the adult world of music will inevitably be at his fingertips. As no less an authority than Elvis Costello has pointed out, Roddy Frame's artistic potential is staggering, and maybe it is no coincidence that his latest album was produced by the man who had worked with the other all time great writer and songsmith, Bob Dylan. If Frame can fulfill just half of his promise, the eighties could see him established as a true populist hero.

At twenty, he is already wiser than many twice his age. As long as he stays on our side, there is always hope. Let us just pray that he does not become an 'old Tory' like Colin Wilson. Somehow I don't think he will...   

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