WHEN an album titled Dreamland is released on 17 May, Roddy Frame, the singer and songwriter who trades as Aztec Camera, will probably experience a glow of pleasure - partly because Dreamland is the most consistent album he has made, and partly because its release has been subject to more delays than the M25. As long ago as last August, Frame was in the Berkshire countryside, mixing these tracks. What kept them?
Hook End Manor is an 18th-century red-brick pile, with wooden staircases, panelled walls, landscaped gardens - the kind of place where only members of the aristocracy, chairmen of oil companies and rock stars get to live. Nowadays it belongs to the producers Langer & Winstanley, who rent it out as a residential studio, but during the 1970s, it was the property of Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour. Gilmour sold it on when his wife grew weary of the ghosts.
Or so the story goes. Frame had been there for a fortnight and hadn't seen anything spectral - though he did confess there were one or two anxious late-night moments when he wished he was part of a 12-piece salsa band, or in a large male voice choir - anything other than a solo artist, sitting up in bed wondering what that creaking was.
But on a hot day in late summer, it was hard to imagine anywhere less spooky. Tea was served on the lawn, beside the badminton court; a large Golden Labrador padded about, occasionally wandering to the studio to shove its head inside a bucket of Winalot, left for it just inside the door; the lawns flowed down to the woods; the birds sang, etc.
The studios at Hook End sit inside some adapted out-buildings. Frame leant across the desk with his mixing engineer, Julian Mendelsohn, an old hand at the game whom Frame had selected for his ability to operate fast and without fuss. They worked on a track called 'Birds', Mendelsohn's hands moving quickly over the desk, sitting Frame's voice in among a broad spread of percussion, synthesisers and acoustic guitars. Afterwards, they played back a tape of three already-completed mixes, similarly rich-sounding and clean-lined. Frame stood on the raised platform at the back of the room, listening with ill-concealed glee and little suspecting it would be the best part of a year before anyone else got to hear this stuff.
The album was delayed while Frame attached a further song, at the request of his record company. (The one he added later was 'Dream Sweet Dreams', an up-tempo number with a pounding Motown backbeat, just released as a single.) You can hardly blame the company for their caution, their desire that this album should come out right. Last summer, Aztec Camera had an astonishing non-hit with 'Spanish Horses', a storming song for flamenco guitars with an unfeasibly catchy chorus and (more remarkably) an unfeasibly catchy verse. It hung disconsolately in the chart's lowest reaches and then limped away, unable to capitalise even on people's heightened susceptibility to things Spanish during the Barcelona Olympics.
The advantage of the delay is that the new Aztec Camera album now emerges at a time of year to match its mood. Dreamland is a summer record, largely thanks to the touch of its producer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose methods seem to thicken the air in which the songs travel. Frame is chiefly lauded for his song-writing, for lyrics which tend to pick at words more heatedly than is normal in pop. But another of his talents is finding unlikely contexts for himself. Knife was smoothly produced by Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler; Love was a kind of American soul album, full of chattering drum machines and clipped guitars; Stray had some lush ballads, but just as many moments of guitar mayhem. For the new album, Frame has found another tangent to go off on, placing himself in the hands of a Japanese composer probably best known for his film music (Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky).
'I liked what he did when he was in the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and I also liked that album where he plays the music from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence on piano. That's where you realise that the atmosphere around his compositions is actually in the writing - it's got nothing to do with synthesisers. Eventually we met in a club in Ibiza, at the height of that balearic beat, E-culture business. And he knew about Aztec Camera, which surprised me. We started talking about working together.'
These days, if you want to make a record with Sakamoto, you have to get in line. Frame waited, and then waited some more. Finally, somewhere between writing two soundtracks, completing a solo album and composing and arranging the music for the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics, Sakamoto found four free weeks. Frame packed up a bunch of cassettes of his new songs, flew to New York and checked into the Mayflower Hotel.
'Ryuichi's unlike a lot of producers in that he doesn't work from the drums upwards. Often he would set up a little percussive loop and you would build the entire song around that. So that everything you played was in response to that percussive lick. And more often than not, he would take that percussive loop out altogether in the end, or it would just become a tiny feature of the track, when in fact it was the backbone. It just means the tracks have this suppleness which wouldn't be there if you'd been playing to the drums all the way along.'
'He's got this reputation as a boffin, a professor of music who sits in front of a computer screen. But he's more intuitive than that, and he's always trying to corrupt what he knows. Halfway through the day in the studio, he will stop and play some hip hop or some house for 10 minutes, and then go back to what he was doing. He's always trying to trip himself up like that, and to discover new things. Just before we worked together he'd been out in Borneo, I think, with a DAT machine, looking for new sounds.'
Sakamoto had Frame experimenting with lower keys, 'dropping my voice so I could sit real close on the mike and get a real intimacy that you don't ordinarily get'. Frame says his days there rapidly fell into a pattern. Into the studio in the early afternoon; out again at around 2am; straight across to a deli off Time Square for a turkey sandwich ('because it was possible to get one at two in the morning, and for no other reason'); a cab-ride back to the Mayflower; an hour or so listening to Shabba Ranks on a ghetto-blaster; bed. It was a period of brisk efficiency, before the delays set in. But the album is, at least, worth its wait.
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