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Armed With Love
from Guitarist, May 1988
by Michael Lawrence

Aztec Camera first hit the record scene in 1983 with the release of 'High Land Hard Rain' an album dominated by Roddy Frame's inspired songs and bold acoustic guitar playing. The following year Knife' was released, produced by Mark Knopfler and containing the classic single All I Need Is Everything. Now after a three year 'lay off' Aztec Camera return to the scene with a third album, Love, their best yet. Michael Lawrence met Roddy at London's Town & Country Club and asked about the big time gap between 'Knife' and 'Love' . . .

"What have I been doing you mean? Not all that much really. The `Knife Tour' was quite a big tour and then I came back and started to try and write more simplistically not as cluttered so that the guitar didn't dictate everything. I wanted the melody to dictate what went on round about so that the words I used were more direct and less open to misinterpretation. I started writing lots of love songs."

Most of your songs are love songs aren't they?

"Yeah, but these were more blatant - I was listening to Anita Baker and Luther Vandross, that kind of stuff."

Tony Blackburn music?

"Oh, yes, he plays some nice stuff, the American 'Quiet Storm' radio, that's what I love."

You obviously get inspiration from America, how are Aztec Camera perceived over there?

"Oh, it's very much the same way as here - we're not all that famous."

But you've managed to virtually sell out this entire tour, even after not releasing a record for three years.

"No, I don't mean in that way. We're not a big chart-topping group but we get a certain amount of respect from our audience, which is good - not that sort of 'revered angel' respect that we used to have - it's a bit more a rock gig now."

The second album 'Knife' was produced by Mark Knopfler. I heard that you liked the way he'd produced a recent Dylan album...

"Yeah, I liked that and the music he did for the Bill Forsyth film (Local Hero). I thought what he did on that was good, although as it turned out I think there were problems when he was doing the Dylan album.

The quote I heard was that Dylan was a great musician but a lousy guitarist. How did you get on with Knopfler?

"He's alright, I think he's fine, he's OK."

As a musician or a person?

"As a person. As a musician he's a great guitarist - really, really good."

82-83 saw the `Postcard' era - the Scottish bands like Orange juice, yourselves, The Bluebells and another group, Friends Again, who made a couple of great singles. Was that era reactionary towards the synth band fetish going on in England at the time - let's make some guitar music?

"No, it was a reaction to what was going on in Glasgow I think. It was either synth bands like Simple Minds and H20 or else it was heavy metal bands."

The two extremes of the spectrum and nothing really in the middle.

"Yeah, but they were both a bit leaden; it needed something a bit lighter - a bit more camp."

You had fun making your records.

"Oh yeah, it was all quite sort of girlish what we did."

You were very much an acoustic group, your first two singles Oblivious and Walk Out To Winter featured the acoustic sound heavily. Was that a personal preference?

"Well, yeah it was a reaction to some of the records I'd been listening to that featured electric guitar. It was a bit of a challenge picking up an acoustic guitar and walking into the middle of a 'rock' gig in Glasgow - the people all thought 'What's that 16 year old doing?'"

You were about 16 when you wrote Oblivious and it didn't become a hit until you were 19 is that right?

"I think it was about 17/18 actually, it was about the same time that I wrote We Could Send Letters but it was something of a challenge. Most bands in clubs thought they had to go out and knock 'em dead and do covers and things, and I had all these fancy lyrics and everything."

Did you feel much pressure in the earlier days? There you were, 19, and two hit singles under your belt, did you ever think 'Christ! What do I do next?'

"Not really."

I knew you'd say that!

"See, what I do is easy. It's better than being 19 in the mines or being a deep sea diver. I mean I have cut my mouth and my finger on this tour, we had a little jolt in the van which ended up with my front teeth coming through my lip."

And you had to play that night.

"It was no problem, the doctor came."

Onto the new album 'Love' why did you use so many producers?

"It wasn't by design. As it turned out it didn't matter because I had complete control anyway - that's why it's got quite an even sound to it, it doesn't jump around from track to track. But I really wanted to work with Tommy LiPuma and Russ Titelman but they could only do two tracks each because they were so busy so I ended up doing some myself and some with Rob Mounsey but it was just the way it worked out in that four months in New York."

It was all recorded in New York?

"Apart from one track, Somewhere In My Heart, which we did in Boston with Mike Jonzun producing. It was great because I got to work with so many musicians - one day Marcus Miller, the next Steve Gadd."

How did you find it working with Steve Gadd on the track Paradise?

"He went behind the drum kit twice during that session. He played along the first time and didn't really like it, then he did another one and that was it. But we spent hours and hours in the studio hanging out and chatting and talking about the barrier between us as far as age differences went, and machines etc..."

'Aztec Camera' how did that name come about? Was it inspired by some ancient invention you'd heard of apparently in some museum they've got this electrolyte battery which the Aztecs used over 2000 years ago to plate jewellery.

"No, it was in one of my deep thinking, psychedelic periods when I was about 15 - you know, that sort of acid rock thing. We used to wander around East Kilbride wearing pink nylon paisley and cravattes and red shoes with massive trousers and great big overcoats. And because the bands we were listening to had names like 'The 13th Floor Elevators' and all that ridiculous crap, we came up with the name 'Aztec Camera'.

You've still got one of the original members, David Ruffy, on drums although he's the only survivor from the early days.

"We've got Eddie Kulak on keyboards, too, but none of the original Aztec Camera made it to records - apart from me."

You also used to have Malcolm Ross, ex Orange juice... What's he doing now?

"Yeah, he's been doing some film music; that's what he wants to get into. He was really good but I'm always dissatisfied, I thought he was great at some things but I think Malc's better at his own thing. He's got his own distinctive sound."

You use a Schecter on stage.

"I use a Schecter with those Seymour Duncan pickups because Schecter pickups are terrible - I had to get them taken out they were so weak. I've also got a red Gibson ES 355."

I notice you also have an Ovation propped up on stage.

"I used to use Masanos with Hot Dot pickups but the feedback was incredible with all that bass resonance. So they're a good compromise, Ovations, but not the sort of guitar I'd pick up and strum along at home because I've got a Masano for 150 which sounds better than half the Martins I've heard. Ovations are good live because they can cut through and they've got a good acoustic sound."

I see you're all using the Trantec wireless system, do you endorse them?

"No, we just bought them..."

...You could have probably negotiated a discount...

"Yeah, maybe so, but they're quite cheap anyway. There were two gigs on the American tour when we couldn't use them."

Because of frequency problems?

"Yeah, New York both times, because it's got so many signals flying around..."

You end up broadcasting 'can you make a pickup on 53rd', the Spinal Tap sort of thing... (Roddy laughs). But no problems in the UK?

"Not over here. We almost had a problem last night but it just sorted itself out."

Do you feel any pressure playing here in London.

"No, I just treat it the same as anywhere else you know - people in London or Birmingham or Glasgow, if they didn't want to see you they wouldn't buy tickets."

I noticed that the video for your new single How Men Are featured you playing with some nice vibrato. What do you think of your guitar playing?

"I think it's pretty intuitive, not technically spot-on, but I'm not the sort of person who practises all the time."

I think you've been quite bold in the past with your acoustic solos.

"When I'm playing an acoustic solo I just treat it like an electric. I hit them pretty hard - I don't have much reverence for guitars - I just look at them as tools."

How long have you been playing?

"Since I was about nine, I suppose. I learnt like C, D and G and my interest then wavered for a couple of years. I started again when I was twelve and I liked people like Mick Ronson and Dr. Feelgood, and then of course punk came along and I just said "Yeah, you just need a good riff" - you don't need to be bored about music.

Did you go for punk?

"Totally, totally."

Who did you like then?

"Sex Pistols, Clash, The Fall, Alternative TV."

I remember the rumour that Jones and Cook of The Pistols could actually play, although they always seemed to go to great lengths denying this... Of late the trend seems to be towards technique, and your solo in Aztec's version of Jump was very tongue in cheek...

"My solo in Jump was more like something you'd hear The Birthday Party doing than Van Halen. It was supposed to sound like Sweet Jane by The Velvet Underground. It was just a bloody mess and that's what I wanted to get really. It was pretty unbearable to listen to in the studio. I really liked the original version though."

You did it in one take?

"Oh yeah, at about four in the morning."

Did you ever get any feedback from Eddie on that.

(laughs) "Any feedback? No I didn't! Do you think he's heard of Aztec Camera?"

I attended a Jam at the NAMM Show in LA recently and it was like a musical Olympics with six guitarists on stage, including Van Halen and Sambora, playing to a packed and hypnotised audience, but it really lost me because they were all trying to outspeed each other... What do you think about that kind of attitude.

"Oh, but I think Van Halen's very good, you can't take that away from him. It's just not the sort of thing I like to listen to - I like the solo in Pale Blue Eyes by The Velvet Underground because it's just slow and painful."

Also in LA the musicians were given the kind of security usually accorded to a US President. They were surrounded by minders but only talking to fellow musicians - not fans trying to tear their clothes off. Do you have any problems being recognised by fans?

"No, sometimes I have trouble getting enough fans!"

What sort of bands do you like?

"Apart from Anita Baker and Luther Vandross I like Music For Airports by Brian Eno, Sakomoto, Iggy Pop, Bowie, Al Green, Prince does some good stuff. Talk about good guitar playing, listen to the guitar on Same Ole Love by Anita Baker or Give Me The Reason by Luther Vandross, it's brilliant! And I like the way Anita Baker actually sounds like a band and when she uses sequencers it's always in a smart way."

Have you ever wanted to play on anyone's album?

"I want to play for Billy McKenzie but he doesn't have a telephone he's probably racing his whippets or something anyway."

On Love you did use a lot of studio musicians although you've got a band with you tonight. Is this going to be a permanent band - will you be recording with them?

"I don't know, we'll see how it goes - I don't look much further than tonight..."   

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