Aztec Camera: The Outsider Comes In

This has been the year of RODDY FRAME. The leader of Aztec Camera, his songs have delighted critics with their complex, resonant lyrics allied to a disarming musical simplicity. Everybody who’s anybody has tipped Roddy Frame, who seems to be bearing up well under the strain. But can an adult songwriter find his niche in a juvenile pop world?

YOU’D HAVE to have spent the past month in an isolation ward not to have heard or read of Aztec Camera. The media blitzkrieg comes courtesy of the press corps of Warner Bros. to whom the combo recently signed for an undisclosed but, it’s whispered, by no means minor sum. You probably know too by now that, to all intents and purposes, Aztec Camera is/are Roddy Frame, a soft-spoken young Scot whose songs, voice and predominantly acoustic guitar are at the vortex of the Camera ocuvre. The spot of Litspeak Francois is, for once, forgivable and apposite. Aztec Camera’s principal offering to date is the LP High Land, Hard Rain. The title is a cheeky pastiche of mid-period Bob Dylan, but the allure of the songs within is principally melodic; snowflake acoustic guitar blizzards through which Frame’s nicely gawky but often disarmingly mature vocals prod like nothing so much as Nick Heyward with backbone.

Besides all this sonic magic there’s also ample evidence of a keen lyrical intelligence at work. Frame has cited a whole catalogue of heroes (not all, I’d bet, meant to be taken too seriously) among which the principal figures are the young versions of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Don McLean. Lyrically he’ll happily parody Bob Dylan — “the broken backs and the pakamacs” (‘Down The Dip’) — and his other heroes whilst not letting pass the opportunity to drop in an image from T.S. Eliot. This may be accidental, but who cares.

Frame probably does and doesn’t at the same time. The recurring theme of the bulk of his interviews is a plea for simplicity. “I hate cleverness for its own sake.” he says, pointing the finger at the likes of XTC. His next album will be, if anything, simpler still. “All I really ever wanted to do was to write songs that got across to people in a very direct way.”

And yes, he’s quick to admit that there are times when the Aztec Camera of that first LP — released earlier this year by Rough Trade — was sometimes lyrically too clever for his own good. “I mean, Elvis had similar problems for a while with all the puns and world-play.” The Elvis in question is the living one, who first confessed his admiration for Frame’s ability in these pages a few months ago (FACE 40). “I didn’t even know about it until someone told me they’d read that article,” says Frame. “I suppose I was surprised more than anything. I didn’t think we’d be the sort of group he’d like.

“I found out later how it started,” Frame goes on. “Elvis’ wife was the one who got into the record first — she was always playing a cassette in the car, apparently. Then she made him sit down and listen to it on headphones, which is how he got to hear us.” Costello’s fandom subsequently gave a great deal more than verbal help when the Aztecs were given the support slot on his latest American tour.

It was actually the second time Aztec Camera had crossed the Atlantic. Their Rough Trade deal had a transcontinental counterpart with New York’s Sire label. As a result Aztec Camera were a featured act in a so-called New Music Seminar in New York. “I thought the whole thing was ridiculous,” responds Frame. “They had this hotel where you got this little card and all the record companies had their own suite and you’d just walk in and get lots of free drinks. I put up with it for a day and never bothered to go back.” Coincidentally, however, the band played three nights at Danceteria, leading to a largely enthusiastic if somewhat mystified press reaction. “There’s no such thing as New Music anyway,” as Frame explains. “Mostly it was an excuse for the new Billy Idol video to get shown.”

Where pop scribblers were at first surprised to discover that this particular Bright New Thing found a goodly amount of inspiration in the music of the middle to late-Sixties, this hardly seems to have been a hindrance when it came to audience response. All this interest in the past began, Frame recalls, in the dark days after punk’s first burst had started to dissipate to a cold nothingness.

“I was a punk, sure,” says Frame enthusiastically. “But 78 and 79 were terrible years. That’s when I started to look back and discover the older stuff, when there wasn’t anything very interesting happening in the present anymore.” The most common connection, that with the Californian group Love, was a press response to the early Aztec Camera singles for Scotland’s Postcard Records. “It was after reading the reviews that I borrowed my brother-in-law’s old Love albums and really got into them,” says Frame, obviously amused by the irony.

WHAT KIND of bloke is he really? For a start he’s no sausage machine academic, T.S. Eliot reference or not. “I left school before I was 16. All I ever wanted to do as far back as I can remember was to leave school, get on the dole and form a band. I was never interested in work.” He is, however, an avid reader. In the States, for example, he picked up a book of Jack Kerouac poems. “I realised how much the early Dylan ripped him off,” grins Frame. But then he’s by no means an opponent of plagiarism, nor does he give much credence to the possibility that nostalgia is a bad thing. “Nothing’s new, it’s all been done before. I just see all of us as working within a particular tradition, which is the pop tradition. Hopefully people in ten years’ time will put on Duran Duran and Captain Beefheart and my records and say, ‘Well, these are all good records’, and get something from them.

“But at the same time we’re not trying to do anything old, we’re just doing the same thing at a different time maybe as people were trying to do in the Seventies or the Sixties or Fifties.”

We talk about records, his current listening. “A lot of old Neil Young, Byrds, stuff like that. But I also liked the last Clash album, Combat Rock. I still play that a lot. I even like what the Style Council are doing even though I’ve always hated Paul Weller.”

Why?

“He’s just — horrible.” The last word is squeezed out of what could only be described as a constipated expression. “He’s just the epitome of everything that’s bad. He’s… he’s a horror,” concludes Frame, refusing to be drawn further.

His home is a remote country cottage outside Manchester. “It’s a real hermit’s place. I got it just recently and had it done up. But I haven’t really had much time there lately with all the touring and everything.” He’ll be back there soon, however, no doubt ensconced over a pile of books by Colin Wilson, his current obsession. Wilson, for those who don’t know, made an explosive arrival on the late Fifties’ Angry Young Man scene with The Outsider, a highly idiosyncratic (and extremely accessible) interpretation of Existentialism, still a pretty cool subject with the black-garbed Beats of the era. Wilson’s subsequent notoriety began with things like his admission that he’d scribbled his first best-seller on a Hyde Park bench in a week, and he’s since moved on to be an astoundingly productive writer, dealing with everything from philosophy and the occult, through to genre fiction including SF (The Mind Parasites is well worth digging up), thrillers, a biography of Rasputin etc. etc. etc.

“I’ve read just about all of his early books,” Frame confesses. “And some of them are pretty hard to find. But I’d rather find them by browsing around than order them from a library or anything — it’s a lot more fun. I recently picked up a copy of his autobiography for two quid on the Portobello Road and it was a signed limited edition of about 300, which was a great find.

“What I love about him is that he’s one of the most original, progressive authors I’ve read, but his style is so direct. And he writes everything; he writes seedy sex novels, murder stories, spy stories and he always manages to get his ideas to come through all of them very clearly.”

Wilson’s so-so reputation with the academics Frame puts down to his working-class (Leicester) background. “They mistook his confidence and the need to get things done for arrogance. He walked into a pub once when he was really young, about 18, and this mystic old bloke walked up to him and said ‘You’re gonna be really famous’. And he just said I know’ and ordered a drink. I love that story.”

His own driving force? “I’m ambitious to make good records. I like getting my picture in things, so obviously there’s ambition there somewhere. What would I be doing if I didn’t have a group? I’d never given it much thought until recently, but now I look at, say, McDonald’s and there’s a lot of intelligent people working in places like that. And I wonder if I could stick with something like that. I’ve never enjoyed work. I’d much rather be poorer and have my own time.”

YES, SAYS Roddy Frame, Costello and he did chat about music during the tour. “He had a birthday party and we had quite a long talk. He made some useful suggestions. Mainly he was saying I should put keyboards in the band, and funnily enough I’d been thinking along the same lines myself anyway.”

He doesn’t see his music getting more complex in structure or orchestration in the near future. “If anything things have been getting simpler and simpler. At the very start there’d be a lot more changes and things in the songs, and as we’ve gone on it’s always been a matter of making things more accessible.”

The immediate Aztec calendar includes two dates on home territory — Glasgow and Edinburgh — just before Christmas. “After that we’re coming back to London to do four tracks with Clive Langer and Alan Wynstanley. I really like their recent stuff. I even liked Wilder a lot, even though it got some pretty bad press.”

Maybe Julian Cope did too many interviews, wore too many funny hats? “He did go a bit over the top I suppose, especially with that barnet of his.” The tasselled cowboy jacket lies limp under Roddy Frame’s jeaned backside. In mute suede agony.

© Giovanni DadomoThe Face, December 1983

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