I FIRST HEARD Aztec Camera two years ago with ‘We Could Send Letters’, their contribution to the Rough Trade C81 compilation. I moved four times that year, three the year before – six cities in two years – and that song hit a prone chord, a shy one, of friendships over before they began.
I saw Aztec Camera live that fall in London with the Blue Orchids, a rare night of warmth in four months of rain, bombs, noise and unfriendly faces. Acoustic guitars, no beer on my shoes…I even met a girl.
It wasn’t until last fall and their third 45, ‘Pillar to Post’, that I heard Aztec Camera again. Suddenly, it seemed they’d become polished, professional and quite good, with a female backing chorus even. But I longed for the rough, juvenile, unfinished charm of that night at the London Polytechnic – and of ‘We Could Send Letters’.
It became obvious, though, that ‘Pillar to Post’ was simply a piece of classic bubblegum, rather than bedroom solitude, building and jubilant, and dare I say it, like something the Bay City Rollers might have done. An obvious choice for a U.S. single, too, now that they’re at that stage.
The next one, ‘Oblivious’, pulled me in for good. Bright and clear, beautiful and anxious – nearly perfect. The two songs on the B-side of the 12-inch, ‘Orchid Girl’ and ‘Haywire’, sound almost like Roddy Frame solo numbers. Bare, acoustic and gigantic. The words, the words, the words and, oh, that one line – They call us lonely when we’re really just alone.
I talked a friend out of his import copy of the band’s first album, High Land, Hard Rain, the day he got it. (It’s now out in America on Sire.) And well, it’s not as good. ‘Oblivious’, is on it; ‘Pillar to Post’, too, but the new version of ‘We Could Send Letters’ kinda shows what’s not so good about this one. The production embellishments get too saccharine, the sound too lazy and jazzy; the feel’s just not there. The songs are every bit as good, but there just ain’t a new one on it I like even as much as, say, the two songs on the flip of ‘Oblivious’. The non-album B-side of their latest British 45, ‘Set the Killing Free’, recorded in May, regains some of what was missing since their earlier stuff – it’s noisy, jittery and altogether more real.
Then they turn around and correct: ‘We Could Send Letters’ was meant to be sarcastic, bitter. And maybe Roddy has mentioned Paul Simon one time too many (anyone responsible for gems like ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’ and ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’…) but he does own all the Big Star albums, and for all my gripes, he’s gotta be one of the finer songwriters and lyricists around these days. But more than that, it’s as if he understands.
Roddy formed Aztec Camera around Christmas 1979 in Glasgow, Scotland, with David Mulholland and Alan Welsh. He released two 45s on the near-legendary Postcard label before leaving for London and signing with Rough Trade. What follows are the better bits from a 70-minute phone interview with 19-year-old Roddy from New York, where Aztec Camera was finishing up a short Eastern jaunt last month.
When did you start playing guitar?
I got one when I was about nine, but I was never very good at it until about 1977. I could probably play a Dr. Feelgood song or something. I started listening to records again, got much more enthusiastic, It just made me determined to do it really, because everything was really inspired. There were a lot of people coming up doing things…Mark Perry, people like the Pop Group…
The inspiration might have been in that time, but people listening to you today could have a hard time believing that.
I was very much into experimenting at the time. I had an acoustic guitar and a lot of people had electric guitars. That was people who were just trying to do something that was different from the norm. If you look at the first Alternative TV album, you’ll see a picture of Mark Perry lying there with all his Love albums, Frank Zappa and things like that. This was great ’cause here was someone who was sort of a real faggot-head punk listening to things like that. So I was sort of getting into all that again…Paul Simon again. I thought it’d be nice to do music that was quite melodic, maybe in the vein of somebody like Magazine, but much more acoustic.
Everybody else at the time seemed to be taking a totally different track. Did you just not have much interest in that?
It was just getting a bit boring. I used to play noisy music, too. In 1978, things were getting really noisy, so I just wanted to play things that were more acoustic.
In Aztec Camera’s early days, a lot of those Postcard bands got compared to the Velvets and people like that. Have you just kind of moved away from that earlier sound – ’cause live or the ‘We Could Send Letters’ on the C81 tape – that’s certainly a lot different than the version on the record and just about anything else you do these days.
It was quite rough. The newer stuff – it’s not as complicated. It’s more straightforward, cleaner. I’m just using less chords, and the structure of the songs is better. I think we know a bit more about what we want now than we did then. We’ve just tightened up a bit. The Velvet Underground inspired me because they used all these beautiful chords and lovely melodies, great lyrics – and really built up in a frenzy at the end of a song. That’s where I’ve sort of copied things like ‘Release’. It had that bittersweet quality. They could do these really nice melodies, but there was always something in there that made the edge show a bit, which was good. Probably a massive needle with some heroin in it.
You were only 15 when you started Aztec Camera. A lot of things change during that period in a person’s life. How has that affected you since you’ve been making records, playing all the time?
I think you do get a little more cynical. I’m still very optimistic. I’m still a bit cynical, too, about what you see when you look around. When I was 16, I was quite sort of bitter about a lot of things – in a quiet, stupid, romantic way – a lot of the time. I wasn’t the best person to have at your party. But now I can cope with those things much better. I was a real moaner. I dunno, I used to just read books. Now I’m much mare intuitive, I think…and a bit more groovy. I’ve stopped listening to Mark Smith and started listening to Michael Jackson.
How has that affected the types of things you write about, and maybe the types of songs you write as well?
I think we’re more humorous on stage now. I think we have more confidence, and there’s more of a sense of adventure in what we do. It’s not all so pofaced. I just genuinely like, these days, having a good time, as they say. I used to frown on that a bit as being a waste of time.
But as far as your songwriting, what kind of effect has that had on you?
I was probably a little bit more mature than some people when I was 16, a little wiser as to what I wanted to do. And I was too lazy to go to work anyway. A job was just out of the question for me really. I could never imagine going out to work.
Have you written much new stuff since the album?
Yeah. I’ve been sort of in two minds about what I wanted to do. It’s coming back together now. I had very acoustic, very Paul Simon-y sort of stuff, like Leonard Cohen-type stuff. And I had stuff that was very much like the B-side to ‘Walk Out to Winter’. So it’s like I’m trying to cross Leonard Cohen with the Birthday Party or something, and I’ve found a way to do that, I think, now. I’m just going to incorporate both extremes. They have to be very extreme – a very laid back acoustic guitar and a very harsh abrasive guitar, maybe like somebody like Martin Bramah (Blue Orchids) or Neil Young. A very heavy sort of guitar, quite scratchy, quite Tom Verlaine-ish. So, I’m just gonna do that with the next album. I think most of the songs are going that way.
Why is that?
I like the idea of people using both sides, a really sweet song, but with something terribly bitter in it. It just jars. Television always used to do it, the Velvet Underground. It’s just a tradition that we must uphold. I mean, if you don’t do that, you’re just trying to kill America’s heritage.
The album was very clean, very quiet…
At the time of the album, we were trying to make the best of that melodic approach. Now that we’ve done that, I want to experiment more. It’s probably going more toward things like ‘The Bugle Sounds Again’. Have you heard that, the really horrible noise at the end of that? There’s some backwards bugle and saxophone, some backwards tape. We’ll work more on having more of an edge on it – just because it’s been played live a lot now. We can experiment a bit more on stage. Songs like that will take on more of an experimental quality. When we play live, it does sound a lot more trashy.
Do you want to move away from the real clean type stuff?
No. I’d like to do the sort of album that people would listen to and really get drawn in by, that people who listen to Jackson Browne can listen to.
The noisier stuff – are they gonna like that?
Yeah, they will, because I’m gonna put it in there. They’re gonna sit there and listen to this beautiful song and think, ‘this is really great,’ and then this horrendous guitar is gonna come in.
Well, why didn’t you do that on the first one?
I wasn’t courageous enough.
Some people seem repulsed that you have mainstream propensities. Have you gotten a lot more… um…mainstream, as far as your ideas?
I think I’ve just wised up to what it is. If I go to some record company convention, it’ll suit me a lot better if people look at me and say, ‘Well, there’s that guy who plays acoustic guitar’ and start comparing me to the more mainstream acoustic stuff that is around. I mean, you don’t want to come on as some sort of weirdo. It opens so many more doors, really. I think it’s a matter of using a mainstream approach; I don’t think it means that you’re a mainstream person.
Well…If you had a particular idea as far as your music went and you changed it in order to make it more mainstream…
It just comes down to simple things. If you’re a band in Britain and you wanna call yourself The Fuck, then you can forget America. You’re not gonna be played on American radio. People aren’t gonna drive along in their cars listening to you. It doesn’t matter if you make really nice music; it’s a matter of seeing how to do it. There’s no point in being childish about it and sort of trying to run around being a weirdo and be lousy to people all the time.
Yeah, but there’s a lot of area in between that and making it perfectly palatable for the American audience. I mean, if Roddy Frame was recording a song he thought could be a hit, but there was one real noisy guitar in it, and he were to take it out because he thought, ‘They’re not going to play this on the radio if it has that really noisy guitar in it,’ then that to me is –
Compromising. Yeah, to me, too. I’m not saying I would do that. All I’m saying is I’ve gotten quite bored with the whole scene in Britain, where a lot of bands are just going nowhere. If you believe in your music so much that you want to make music that isn’t palatable, then that’s fine. But I want people to hear my music because I think it’s good. I’ll do chart shows or whatever it takes to do that because I’m willing to make my music available to people.
But would you change your music to do that?
No. I don’t think I have to, because I think it’s quite commercial anyway. I don’t think we’re one of the most left-field bands to come out of Britain. I’ve got more in common with Paul Simon than the Birthday Party. I think you gotta decide whether you want people to hear your music or not. If it’s not that important to you, I think you should just stay home and play it, and don’t go cluttering up the clubs. I’d rather play ‘Release’ to 10,000 people than 100 people. I mean, you look at people like Simon and Garfunkel. They haven’t lost anything. I think they’re one of the best. And they’re playing places like Central Park, Shea Stadium. And that’s great. They’ve haven’t compromised. They just write what they write. I just see the similarity between me and people like that.
Lyrically, your songs tend to be very complex, very crafty, less direct and simple. Why?
I think it’s just a history of being quite British, really.
Books with long sentences…
Yeah, when I was younger I was really into that. So all the lyrics are a bit like that. I mean, I do spend a lot of time on them. Something like ‘We Could Send Letters’ – the lyrics to that were written, then rewritten and rewritten. I’ve almost got a book at home called ‘We Could Send Letters’.
Most of your songs are about similar things: girls, relationships…
It’s just something that occupies my mind a lot. I dunno, I think I wanna get married some day. That’s really important. It always has been and always will be.
Who are the girls on the covers of ‘Oblivious’ and ‘Pillar to Post’, and are they the same girl?
No, they’re two different girls. I just have a thing about having girls on the cover. I had a girl on the cover of ‘Mattress of Wire’, too. I’ve always liked to have girls, from different times, just that sort of femininity that has never lost it’s appeal to me, even in like Egyptian times.
Just certain things that have a romantic air to you?
What about people who accuse you of being wimps?
Tell them to come over.
© Blake Gumprecht, Matter, September 1983