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Aztec Camera - Roddy Frame on 1983’s “High Land, Hard Rain”

A Shootout on Mainstream

Apr 09, 2014 Web Exclusive
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When it appeared in the spring of 1983, Aztec Camera‘s debut album, High Land, Hard Rain, was an acoustic-driven breath of fresh air. Led by teenaged singer/songwriter/guitarist Roddy Frame, the Scottish band offered a batch of memorable songs that deserved a broader audience than they reached at the time, from the infectious “Oblivious” and “Pillar to Post” to the introspective “The Bugle Sounds Again.” Frame went on to release another five Aztec Camera albums before recording under his own name.

With a new two-disc deluxe anniversary edition, High Land, Hard Rain is giving a gem of its period a reintroduction. As Frame relates below, the album was sadly not earmarked as a priority for its handlers at the time, even if its songs revealed that the man who wrote and sang them was entering the music scene at the top of his game.

Hays Davis (Under the Radar): I had tickets to see Elvis Costello within a few months of the release of High Land, Hard Rain. When it was announced that Aztec Camera was the opener, I bought a copy so I could get to know the songs before seeing you. Thanks to heavy traffic, unfortunately I ended up missing your entire set, though High Land, Hard Rain ended up as one of my favorite albums of that year.

Roddy Frame: That Elvis Costello tour was really good for us in that sense, where people who maybe weren’t aware of us, since we toured with him, they went out and got the album.

When did you first begin songwriting?

The first song I ever wrote was with a punk band I had when I was 13 years old and it was a very archetypal punk protest song. My songwriting really took off when I heard bands like Magazine with Howard Devoto, who was kind of a punk, but he could use proper lyrics and proper music. Until bands like that had come along, with the punk thing it was kind of frowned upon to be too musical or too lyrical.

How did Aztec Camera first come together?

I had a kind of punky band called Neutral Blue, and I wanted to leave, and I took the drummer with me. I wanted us to be more like Joy Division or Magazine or something like that. And so, in 1979, I stole the drummer from Neutral Blue, whose name is David Mulholland, and then I left school at the end of that year and we formed Aztec Camera and started rehearsing. I suppose the inspiration was things like Joy Division and Magazine, but also the Liverpool bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. And that’s how we started. We wanted an equally ridiculous name, and that’s why we chose Aztec Camera.

At the time the group formed, how old were you?

I was 15. I formed it just before I left school, and I left schoolI was 16 in January of 1980, so I formed the band just a couple of months before that. And I already had songs like “We Could Send Letters” and “Lost Outside the Tunnel.”

How much was Aztec Camera a group activity in the early days? Was it already basically you writing songs and presenting them to the guys, and then everybody getting them together?

That’s the way it was. Then as now, I was a little control freak. I wanted the drums to be like this and the bass to be like this. It was very much my thing. To be fair, the lineup I think of as the classic, as the proper first lineup, was myself, [bassist] Campbell Owens, and [drummer] Dave Ruffy. We made a couple of albums like that and we did the bulk of the touring with that lineup. I think you have to give those guys their due. I think it’s a bit false to say that it was an ever-changing lineup. I think for those few years we did the bulk of the work that people remember Aztec Camera for.

How did you come to Rough Trade’s attention?

That’s an interesting question. I was talking about this the other night. I still have the rejection letter from Rough Trade. We started out on Postcard Records, which was a small Glasgow independent label, and we were distributed by Rough Trade. And when I decided I wanted to leave Postcard to make an album, Geoff Travis from Rough Trade got in touch. For some reason, after the Postcard thing, they wanted to put our records out, and that’s when we moved to London and went to Rough Trade. Rough Trade was kind of the big indie label at the time, so it was a good place for us to go.

How early were some of those songs written?

I think I wrote “We Could Send Letters” in 1979, when I was about 15 and was putting together songs for Aztec Camera. “Lost Outside the Tunnel” we used to play in my original band, Neutral Blue, which was half kind of indie, half kind of punk. We’d do “Lost Outside the Tunnel,” but we would do songs by Alternative TV and The Clash as well. So those songs were the earliest ones that made it onto High Land, Hard Rain.

Where was the band formed?

It was formed in a town called East Kilbride [in Scotland]. It’s just about nine miles south of Glasgow. We formed there and made our first couple of singles there and then finally moved to London about two years later.

At the time the album came out, did you feel there were other bands moving in a similar direction to Aztec Camera, or did you feel like what you guys were doing was a bit outside of what was going on?

Remember, I was coming from a punk background, so when we started doing gigs in 1980, I think people thought it was odd enough that there was a 16-year-old kid coming on the stage, but with a 12-string acoustic guitar, that was really odd. Either you had post-punk bands who were doing a Joy Division thing, which was very austere, or else you had bands who were doing a kind of Simple Minds-synthesizer-The Human League kind of thing. Those were the two ideas of modernity.

I don’t think it was a reaction to what was going on. I guess we made those singles in 1980, 1981, so by the time 1983 came along and the album came out, I think a lot of bands had been influenced by us and by Postcard Records in general, bands like Everything But the Girl and The Smiths. I did hear echoes of our music in them, definitely.

As you were recording the album, were there any difficult choices to be made, such as the producers’ suggestions for how the songs might be presented? Was there anything that went against what you wanted to do?

I know that, in retrospect, some people think that maybe the album is emblematic of its time, and that it has things like Syndrums or drum sounds that were very ‘80s, but that’s what was happening at the time. And in fact, I never met a more sympathetic producer than John Brand. He really was great for me. I was young and he was very sympathetic, very kind, and he helped me make the kind of record I wanted. And I really wanted input from him, too, because I didn’t know how to make records. I was so young, and in those days it was still quite a mysterious experience for me to enter a recording studio, and he made it easy. I think those guys [Brand and Bernie Clarke] did a great job.

Some touches like the occasional Syndrums were of the period, but listening to the album these days, there’s nothing that I think that seems particularly or distractingly dated.

That’s really nice of you to say so. Some things like the Syndrums, sure, I think that is of its time, but we wanted to try something new. One thing about me is, I’ve always been up for experimenting. I don’t see the point in going to work with someone if you don’t want their ideas.

What mattered in the long run was the strength of the songs, of course. How close were some of the songs on this edition’s bonus disc to making the final cut of the original albums?

Actually, I was thinking about that too. It’s funny because now I listen to something like “The Spirit Shows” or some of those earlier songs that didn’t make it and I think they’re just as good as the songs that did. But I think when you’re young and you’re in the middle of it you have very strong feelings. If you feel like you have a particular songwriting feel in mind and another song doesn’t fit that, then it’s very black and white. In retrospect, I think a lot of those early songs were very good, and I think they were just as good as the songs that went on the album, in the end.

That certainly speaks to your strengths at the time.

Well, I think it’s being young, and all you want to do is write and wear a guitar, and that’s your priority. As you get older you have other priorities creep in, like where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to eat. [Laughs] When you’re 18 you don’t care.

What do you remember about how the album was received when it first came out?

I remember that the reviews were very good in the British music papers, and they can be very unkind, so that was heartening. I remember thinking at the time that that didn’t really translate into…I mean, we could play 30 dates driving around Britain and we’d still sometimes play to half-empty halls, so it was still a kind of underground thing. It wasn’t a mainstream thing. And I remember going to the States with Elvis and feeling that even though the people who came along specifically to see us, they really loved it, [but] I still felt that, as a whole, it didn’t really penetrate outside of that thing of hip kids. It wasn’t really going to break into the mainstream. I remember feeling that we were a very low priority at Warner Bros., you know. [Laughs] I didn’t think we were going to be competing with Van Halen.

And that’s too bad. It wasn’t hard at the time for me to imagine “Oblivious” getting some significant airplay if they’d tried.

Oh, man. The whole story behind that is too boring to tell. I was going out with a girl who was working for Warner Bros. and I was there the day that the records were going out, and I heard the conference call about promotion and sales, and I heard that “Oblivious” wasn’t on the list. And because I wasn’t supposed to be listening to the call I wasn’t able to say anything. [Laughs] I remember it very well.

I’d love to know what was on that list to be pushed. I can imagine there being a few artists who probably aren’t seeing a deluxe anniversary edition of their album being released this year.

I think it was Talking Heads and Van Halen. Apart from that I don’t remember. I wish I could remember.

It makes me think of the documentary on the band X [X: The Unheard Music]. Label reps that they interviewed were excited about pushing the rock band Point Blank at the time X was on their roster. And now, in 2014, Point Blank is lost to the winds while I still listen to X.

Well, there you go, man. That’s funny, because when I started Aztec Camera, most of the bands I was listening to weren’t mainstream bands, so it was never an ambition to be mainstream. I think it’s just, when you start to take part in the music business, then you have that hunger for recognition, don’t you? But, to be honest, most of my favorite bands at the times weren’t well known at all.

Whether or not a band is shooting for the mainstream, for all they put into an album, naturally they want people to hear it and to be able to make a living with it.

As you began work on (the 1984 follow-up album) Knife, was there anything from your experience with High Land, Hard Rain that you wanted to be different with that next album, whether with the songwriting or style of music or anything else?

I think, really, what it was, and I think some people found this hard to understand, the choice of Mark Knopfler as producer. And we used AIR Studios, like George Martin’s studios in London. It was a real step in a different direction. It was definitely a step towards a different kind of music.

I’d been in that indie ghetto since I was 16, and by the time I was 19-20, I wanted to move on. I wanted to try something different, and I wanted to try a different way of making records, and I wanted the records to sound better.


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April 9th 2014

I too became aware of Aztec Camera through their support of Elvis Costello - been a fan of AC and Roddy ever since.  The reissue of High Land is awesome.  Hopefully Domini will continue to reissue the subsequent records with loads of bonus goodies.

Tobi Walker
April 9th 2014

I thought this was a very informative interview even though the formatting errors make it difficult to figure out where the questions are being asked.  I would love to see more on the years afterwards.  A gentle reminder of what came before…before the new album is released.

Kevin O'Brien
April 10th 2014

Excellent interview. Good questions encourage good answers!

Carl Fellstrom
April 10th 2014

Great interview….El Framo’s passion for that time comes through in the chat and lots of new facts too…really enjoyed reading this

Barry Horsebutter
January 13th 2015

From what I recall, despite the lack of promotion, Oblivious was a sizeable hit in the UK, going just about high enough in the charts to not put us ‘hip kids’ off. HLHR has always been one of my favourite albums, but once Roddy exited the ‘indie ghetto’ he lost me. Real shame for me that Roddy peaked at 19.