WITH his first album for eight years, Roddy Frame is edging back into the limelight. About time, says Fiona Shepherd
As Kate Bush would surely attest, it’s not that difficult to appear enigmatic in this frenetic information age. Just living your life and doing your thing away from the white heat of the spotlight is enough to confer a sense of mystique on any artist. Similarly, just because Roddy Frame, erstwhile mainman of Aztec Camera, doesn’t release a ton of music, jump at every interview opportunity or spill about his private life on Twitter doesn’t make him an inscrutable hermit. In fact, he is nothing but charming and chatty in conversation. It’s just that when he does make a public pronouncement, it is all the more appreciated.
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This past year has been a flurry of activity by Frame’s parsimonious standards. After years operating as a lone ranger, he is playing with a band again, the consequence of which is new album Seven Dials and something close to a touring schedule. Frame notes with pride that he will soon have played in Glasgow twice – twice! – in 12 months, referring back to last year’s ecstatically received 30th anniversary celebration of Aztec Camera’s debut album High Land Hard Rain at the Royal Concert Hall.
“A few songs in I just felt like I was part of the audience and we were all listening to the record,” remembers Frame. “The cherry on the cake for me was that Campbell Owens [original Aztec Camera bassist] came to the Glasgow gig and we hung out backstage afterwards. That was just beautiful.”
For a musician who has always forged ahead, confounding expectations throughout his career, Frame is wholly comfortable with a spot of nostalgia and speaks with great affection about rediscovering the precocious songs from that album and other rarities from his teenage days on Glasgow’s feted Postcard Records.
“When I was writing those songs I was still finding my way through lots of chord changes and lots of words,” he says. “I tell you some of that stuff is so complicated to play, especially on those big fat-necked guitars, so I was cursing my younger self for being so dexterous and experimental.
“I always thought we should have done a spoof on that punk fanzine, the one that said ‘here’s three chords – go form a band’? I would have ‘here’s seven chords – go form a band’. Every time I put a band together, I have to show the guitarist the chords and they always go ‘f***ing hell – what, really?’ Because I don’t read music, I don’t even know what half the chords are called so then when you hear proper musicians talking about music, it sounds like mathematics.”
Frame may not consider himself a “proper” musician, but many of his peers must baulk at his talent and fluency. His key to acing guitar? Start early and practise like a demon. “From the age of about four, it was what I was going to do,” he says. “By the time I was ten, 11 years old, I just spent every waking hour when I wasn’t in school sitting in front of the record player trying to teach myself guitar.”
What else (within the law) was a young boy going to get up to in 1970s East Kilbride? Or in contemporary Manchester for that matter? Johnny Marr, another golden guitar prodigy of the 1980s, tells a similar story of obsessive self-tuition during his teenage years. Likewise, Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, one of the most distinctive guitar stylists to emerge in recent years. As for Frame, there was no room in his life for anything other than music.
“I was the perfect age for punk,” he says. “Because I was 13, I was just a bit too young so it was like an unrequited love. I saw the Pistols on the cover of NME and fell in love with them before I’d even heard them because of the way they looked. I used to go to concerts at [late, lamented, legendary Glasgow venue] the Apollo on my own because no one my age would go with me. My mum made me a bondage shirt – zips and everything.
“But if you were too musical it was frowned upon and I loved the guitar too much so when the post-punk bands came along, I grabbed on to that and I knew then that was my direction, realising you could go and experiment with synthesizers and acoustic guitars and all that. Bands like Magazine gave us permission to do that.”
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Frame’s guitar heroes included jazz maestros Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt as much as punk trailblazers Joe Strummer and Wilko Johnson. He added the influence of west coast psychedelic bands The Byrds and Love to the mix to produce the idiosyncratic, jazzy jangle of High Land Hard Rain – and then promptly followed up his big breakthrough with the contrary Mark Knopfler-produced R&B-inflected Knife and the glossy transatlantic soul pop of Love. Call it the imp of the perverse, or the incorrigible influence of Postcard Records honcho Alan Horne, “my Malcolm McLaren and my Andy Warhol rolled into one”.
“I was very young and wilful and I used to get out of it all the time, constantly taking speed or getting stoned,” says Frame. “By the time I was 19, I was sitting in meetings with the chairman of Warner Brothers and trying to make sense of that. So I don’t want to give the impression it was a grand plan, I had such catholic taste and I was so experimental, because it wasn’t really like that. It was just how I found my way through the world and I’m still like that. I don’t really have a plan. I’m still intrigued by people who can put on a checked shirt and acoustic guitar and start when they’re 18 and be doing exactly the same thing your whole life. What do you call that? I suppose it’s continuity, isn’t it?”
Instead, Frame decided to drop the Aztec Camera moniker in the 1990s and since then has released only a handful of exquisite acoustic solo albums which are as good (in fact, mostly better) than anything from the Aztec Camera days. Seven Dials, his first new release in eight years, is a band record, inspired by recent good times playing with his old pal Edwyn Collins.
“I just hadn’t felt motivated to make a record for a long time and I go through periods where I don’t even listen to music or even pick up the guitar,” says Frame. “Unless you’re really following your heart, what’s the point? I always feel like I’ve really tried to make every song really truthful and special and say something about life.
“I’m getting older, so who knows how much more I’ll do again. When I hit 50, I had a big party with my friends and didn’t feel any different than I did when I was 21. Then a few months later, I thought ‘maybe everything’s just been a complete waste of time’. Now I think, it’s Christmas in Scotland, let’s do High Land Hard Rain and enjoy it again, put in all the stuff people want to hear – cos who knows what I’ll be doing after that...” Enigmatic to the last – even though he doesn’t mean to be.
Roddy Frame plays the Music Hall, Aberdeen, 1 December and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2 December