Frame by frame

He signed a record deal at 18. In the Eighties, with Aztec Camera, he produced a string of perfect pop hits. So is he happy to rest on his laurels?
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The Independent Culture
Roddy Frame is 35, and he's got very good indeed at smoking. Throughout our interview at Warner Records HQ, he packs away the Silk Cut 100s ("guess that's because you smoke a hundred a day...") with nonchalant ease, as automatically as breathing. Apart from this, he's almost unnaturally laid back. Nothing seems to worry him unduly. He takes his time to consider before answering, and frequently looks off around the room - toward a promo poster of Cher, or one of Alanis Morissette, or into a corner - with a slow, private smile. I don't think he's on drugs: he's just relaxed.

But then, it's not been that hard a struggle for Roddy. He was an infant prodigy, the Mozart of his day, and in his early twenties was being compared, for songwriting skill, to the mature Elvis Costello. He was signed to Warners at the age of 18, and behind the name of Aztec Camera turned out a string of albums from which you will remember hits like the irritatingly catchy "Oblivious" or "Somewhere In My Heart".

Surprisingly, Warners let him go a couple of years back, and a frisson of turbulence followed; he signed to tiny label, Independiente, and released a lovely album, The North Star, under his own name, but Independiente managed conspicuously little promotion. Now, he says, smiling, "I'm finished with Independiente." The chemistry had gone, and the signings have, too. Roddy's adrift, but he doesn't seem phased. The reason we're speaking is that Warners Esp are releasing an Aztec Camera Best Of, taking in everything from very early days (the aching "We Could Send Letters") through mid- period (the bittersweet "Crying Scene", the Clash-style "Good Morning Britain") to lost gems like the exotic "Spanish Horses" and a galvanic "Reason for Living". It's not a bad canon, and might entitle anyone to rest on their laurels a bit. On the other hand, most of it was recorded when Frame was a relative baby. Is the Best Of a holding device?

Roddy lights a Silk Cut. "Yeah... because at the moment, I'm just going back to writing songs again, but as usual, I don't have a grand plan. People always bang on about the craft of the songwriter, don't they? But what I feel is, it should be a playful thing." He looks into a corner. "It's a... vague thing to be doing. Is it a proper job?"

You tell me. Apparently, you once wanted to be a postman. "Ah, that was when I was taking my stuff round to record shops. No, I've never had a proper job. Isn't it a tragedy?"

Frame was born in East Kilbride, moving to London at 18, "so for me, London is home." He's not from a musical family, though. "My father was a great singer. He liked Mario Lanza. On New Year's Eve, everyone would get up and sing, and he'd sing `Dark Lochnagar'. A big voice, a massive voice."

Preternaturally able with instruments, Frame asked a department store Santa for an electric guitar and an amp when he was four, and became obsessed with Bowie soon after. "My whole interest was the ballads - people miss out on the beauty of those, things like `The Bewlay Brothers' and `Quicksand'. I'd lie on my mum's bed when I was nine with the lights out, listening to Hunky Dory. It was another world."

At about 12, he got a stint in an East Kilbride social club with "a bloke about my dad's age who'd played double-bass with Lonnie Donegan. His name was Billy Bain, and he had this big, fat jazz guitar with a Wes Montgomery sound. Fantastic thing for him to do, take the time for a kid like me."

Partly due to all this, Frame was in a band by the age of 13, the punkish Neutral Blue. By 15, he was penning ballads, already developing the style that had him compared to American West Coast bands like Love and The Byrds. His ear is acute. "When I'm in the studio, I'm amazed at how conservative I am. I can't stand to read how other bands `just jammed, and it was edited later'; I'm very structured. I do actually hear things in records and I think that's just wrong. In fact, last night I was listening to `Thank You for the Music' by Abba, and there's one bass note on there - y'know where it goes `So I say...' Do you know that bass note? It's a semi-tone flat."

It's as near to outrage as he gets.

After his second LP, Knife, Frame took a three-year sabbatical, got married (he's now divorced) and returned in 1987 with Love, a raved-about album of clever, seductive soul-pop. One of its singles, "How Men Are", was a clear-eyed piece of gender politics, a New Man anthem ahead of its time. Frame's glad times seem to have changed - "Y'know, women have begun to take their rightful place" - but certain things perturb him. "Obviously, there was a backlash against strident feminism, and the backlash seemed to be an ironic, knowing kind of sexism, resurrecting the old Carry On humour. It was sexism in inverted commas - but the inverted commas seem to have disappeared. And now you get FHM and Loaded, where if women want to do promo, they have to do the page three stuff. It's an odd thing. I speak to younger women and they don't seem to see it. And I think that's maybe..." he shrugs, "an indication that I'm an old fogey." No, I insist, having warmed to him over the past hour; the thing is, the people who read those magazines are just dumb. "Mebbe. But I'm in two minds. And it is good that things got a bit sexier, in a way." This is it with Roddy Frame, what seems like airy other-worldliness is actually thoughtfulness and self-effacement. For example, he'll say he's dabbling with new work, though, "For me, it doesn't really stretch as far as the commercial aspect." So what is he living on? "Money just comes." Before I can kick the table over, he quietly reminds me, "But I have been making the effort since I was 16."

And being successful. In some ways, he's practically earned retirement, though that's not on the cards. So where does he get inspiration? "I've come to the conclusion that what I do is... just bits of other people's records, cobbled together. I try not to do it too consciously, I try to fool myself it's my idea, y'know?"

But I don't think Rod's struggling for ideas in the least.

`The Best Of Aztec Camera' is out now