The Sound of Grown Up Scotland: An Interview With Roddy Frame

Following the 30th anniversary reissue of Aztec Camera’s debut High Land Hard Rain, frontman Roddy Frame releases his latest album on Edwyn Collins’ AED label. He talks to Lucy O’Brien about songwriting, Mark Knopfler’s guitar strings and Scottish independence

Portrait by Steve Gullick

Amid an industrious hub of workshops in West Hampstead is Edwyn Collins’ West Heath Studios, where Roddy Frame recorded Seven Dials, his latest solo album. It’s a move away from the rueful minimalism of 2002’s Surf and the lilting, semi-acoustic Western Skies. Recorded with a full band, it returns to the lush, airy quality of early Aztec Camera. The studio set-up too, is reminiscent of the friendly, anarchic spirit of Postcard Records circa 1979, Alan Horne’s Glasgow label that launched ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’ with bands like Collins’ Orange Juice, the Paul Haig-fronted Josef K and Frame’s Aztec Camera.

Collins’ wife Grace re-ignited the spark 18 months ago by asking Frame if he would like to come and record at the studio. "I wasn’t sure if it would work out because it is very much Edwyn’s turf," says Frame. "I came in with the band, we recorded two tracks and it sounded great. I had a bunch of other songs so we carried on, a week here, a week there, and then decided to put it out on his AED label. They’re are just like family, so there was none of that weird record company stuff."

At the start of the interview Collins pops in to say hello and exchange wry words about Postcard. "We hated Josef K and Josef K hated us," he grins. Frame is happy to be working in the same environment as his "old mucker", calling it "a sweet moment". He has been on a long, circuitous journey since those Glasgow days, via a stint on Rough Trade in the early ’80s, then three glistening high pop albums on WEA, followed by rather serious debut The North Star on Andy Macdonald’s Independiente in 1998 ("it didn’t sit with what was happening at the time, Britpop or something"), to the solo material of the last ten years.

Frame has always been an open, candid interviewee. I remember speaking to him in 1987, as an NME journalist, when his WEA album Love came out and ‘Somewhere In My Heart’ was high in the charts. Despite tussles with major label politics, Frame still had that engaging style and musical enthusiasm. This upbeat quality resonates through his latest album, from the expansive West Coast harmonies of ‘Postcard’ to the personal melodrama and Neil Diamond-style country croon of ‘From A Train’.

Roddy Frame: Neil Diamond? How interesting. Probably because I sing in a lower register these days. That’s a compliment. My producer Seb [Lewsley] says the album reminds him of later records by people like Johnny Cash, where you have the man without the trappings. We’re all projecting other stuff when we’re younger, and when you’re older a lot of that drops away. You get too tired to have any façade. I feel less grudging or resentful. Partly cos if someone insults you, two days later you’ve forgotten it. ‘That guy who was horrible to you’. Was he? Oh, I forgot. I love that. Everyday’s a fresh start!

Going back to the start, there seems to be resurgence of interest in that Glasgow Postcard sound.

RF: Yes, I’m meeting a lot of 16, 17 year olds who are digging those bands. Which is beautiful. It makes me feel good.

Bands like Orange Juice and Aztec Camera always had ambition. The Postcard slogan ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’ echoing Motown – why has there always been that connection with Scottish bands and American soul?

RF: I grew up in East Kilbride and Tamla Motown was what people listened to all the time. Barry White was huge. There was always a big country & western and soul thing, particularly in Glasgow.

What was it like growing up in East Kilbride?

RF: I liked it. Jesus And Mary Chain come from there, and (Rangers boss) Ally McCoist. East Kilbride was a new town, a bit like Basildon. Built for what was charmingly termed ‘the Glasgow overspill’. My friend said, ‘We’re not Glaswegians, we’re a social experiment.’ It was all new and modern. Quite concrete. That’s all right, concrete’s not always bad. There were strips of grass and football pitches and a youth club. My parents didn’t like it because they came from Glasgow and they missed the sense of community, the warmth of the tenements. But then my Dad would remind my Mum, ‘Remember when you were pacing the block waiting for me to come home because there was a rat in the room.’

You were only 16 when you signed to Postcard. What did you remember from that era?

RF: It was brilliant. A real scene. I owe Alan Horne a huge debt. He imbued me with confidence and a healthy cynicism. I picked up some of his contrariness. When I was 13 I’d read NME from cover to cover. Alan was like my Andy Warhol and Julie Burchill rolled into one. He was very cynical, very stylish. Postcard was the perfect apprenticeship. So years later when a manager was on the phone saying, ‘Where’s the record? The record company want a new record, a new cover, a blurb…’ I’d say, ‘Fuck off.’

It was obviously a formative period, and you made strong friendships?

RF: Edwyn and I are still muckers after all these years. Edwyn’s been on a hell of a journey. Why did we gel? I was 16 and he was 20. That was a huge gap. He was just ahead of me, doing it like an older brother. He made a record before me, he was on the front cover of NME before me. He was on the path in front of me… so obviously I was very determined to be seen as separate from that.

Orange Juice were quite sophisticated, they had that jangly American Modern Lovers thing. Josef K were more into the Stooges and the Velvets and Berlin-period Bowie. Then we came along last and were a bit of both. We were seen as a bit gauche because we were very working class. I was still learning. I wore my influences on my sleeve. If I heard something like Wes Montgomery that would be on the record. Or The Clash. I was finding my way on the guitar. That’s why so many chords and lyrics are flowery and abstract. I wanted to write like Howard DeVoto.

Was London and Rough Trade a bit of a culture shock?

RF: I never bought the idea that indie labels were more honest or genuine. I wanted some success, some recognition. I knew High Land Hard Rain was a great record. I’d been slagging them off in some fanzine in Aberdeen and I remember someone from the record company taking me aside like some kind of headmaster. ‘Here at Rough Trade we’re not in the business of making stars’, and I said, ‘I noticed.’ I was quite a mouthy young person. I think our ideas were slightly ahead of theirs, if I might be so bold. We were pushing. Rough Trade finally got their act in gear with The Smiths. Then they understood what Alan Horne had been banging on about. They didn’t realise that it was OK to go on Top Of The Pops if you were clever. The two things weren’t mutually exclusive.

After moving from there to WEA your next album Knife was produced by Mark Knopfler. What was it like working with him?

RF: It was tricky, because he is very much into his own thing. I was young and strident and there was a bit of a clash. But I learned so much from him about playing, and playing guitar. By that point I was sick to the back teeth of that indie jangly bollocks. I’d been to America. I had a serious Jack Daniels habit, and I wanted to make some proper records. At that point the indie thing was horrible. Everyone was getting their name out of Rymans. 30 year old men with bands called the Pencil Cases or the Pencil Sharpeners. All guys ten years older than me with Penguin Classics in their pockets calling themselves the fuckin’ School Bags. See ya later, I said, I’m off to New York! I was ready to sit down and do some proper playing, and Mark Knopfler was brilliant for that. This sounds so muso, but he was the first musician I came across who really understood it was all about getting the right guitar with the right amp and using the right mic. Not screwing around with the EQ, just recording things as they should be.

It’s not just about your technique or the way you play but paying attention to the sound.

RF: Yes. It’s the opposite of, ‘We’ll fix it later.’ I had my troubles with Mark. I was super into my ideas, I was a difficult wee guy. He was the same. But it was a good time for me. We got to use Eric Clapton’s acoustic guitars on that album cos he lent us some. Paul and Linda McCartney were recording in the studio at the time and they were so nice to me. Linda in particular was lovely. When you get older those are the things you remember. You don’t remember arguing with Mark Knopfler over a fucking guitar string.

It’s interesting that despite your punk pedigree, your 1988 hit ‘Somewhere in my Heart’ is still one of the biggest songs on FM radio.

RF: As radio hits it’s quite a punky radio hit! I love that song. I was trying to write a pop song. When it came to putting Love together I tried everything to keep it off the album. I went to America and wanted to make a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis kinda record. I was listening to ‘Sugar Free’ by Juicy, Anita Baker and ‘Tender Love’ by the Force MDs. Green from Scritti Politti had just been to America and I wanted to marry that New York R&B electro thing with my kind of lyrics and style and that British thing. We had nine tracks plus ‘Somewhere In My Heart’. We made that with the Johnson Crew up in Boston. I thought it’s a brilliant song but it doesn’t fit on the record. I was trying to write a new song but time was running out. Eventually we just had to stick it on the end.

I brought out three singles that didn’t do much, then ‘Somewhere In My Heart’ shot up the charts. If it hadn’t been for Billy Bragg with a charity single it would have been Number One. I always love that. It was my biggest hit but it was the runt of the litter. That’s been the song that’s survived. My little baby, the orphan that no one wanted!

How do you feel your approach to writing music has changed since you started out?

RF: When I was younger I loved all that ambiguity and mystery. Now I want to write like Flaubert. With some economy. And some style. And that is hard. The lyrics have to be right. I know when they’re not right.

The lyrics on your new album are very spare in places. There’s a real charge to lines like: ‘Erase the trace of me/Till I’m just a piece of paper…Let me burn into a vapour/I’ve placed my faith in something I cannot believe in anymore.’

RF: I’m constantly losing faith and having to regenerate it. There used to be a Labour party and a Conservative party. A red corner and a blue corner. 1997 we were dancing in the streets – remember? Then, Iraq? What the fuck’s goin’ on now? I don’t remember signing up for him!

What do you feel about Scottish independence?

RF: I’m all for radical positive change. But it seems a wee bit negative. You have to be better educated than me to get the economic ins and outs. When I was young the SNP were odd people from a culture I didn’t understand. I thought it was from the Highlands or something to do with Robbie Burns or tartan. I grew up with T Rex or Starsky & Hutch, so that didn’t appeal to me. But things have changed now and they’re not so nationalistic. Personally, though, instinctively, I want to pull people together not break them apart.

And the Labour Party needs Scotland…

RF: That Tony Blair’s got a lot to answer for. Him and his henchmen. It’s like they took it, they took this thing our fathers were into and gutted it. Did a bit of rebranding. It’s like Currys bought Woolworths and turned it into something else.

On a personal level, though, there seems to be a strong momentum with your new album and your musical direction.

RF: The High Land Hard Rain concerts went well. Campbell Owens (original Aztec Camera bassist) came to a show and loved it, was totally cool about the whole thing. Edwyn’s still here in fine fettle and we’re on good terms. I’m recording for his label. The best times in life are when you are cresting a wave. The worst have been when I’m sticking my oar in trying to make a wave, that’s when things are difficult. I’m very grateful to Grace. I’m not the easiest person to work with, but luckily I know these people so well. I’m lucky there’s a resurgence in vinyl, cos the record has a Side A and Side B. All songs are three and a half minutes long. It couldn’t be more classic. And the time is right.

Roddy Frame’s Seven Dials is out now on AED

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today