Roddy Frame found fame at 16. Now 42, the former Aztec Cameraman craves the life of a regular middle-class guy
Last year, Roddy Frame made a point of seeing ET for the first time. It was, he says, "brilliant", something most of us determined 20 years ago, but which he is only now able to say with certainty. Frame has been catching up on lots of big 1980s movies recently, and after spending a couple of hours in his company a profound side to this new-found appreciation of simple, bygone pleasures emerges; a sense that, having bade his goodbyes to childish things so early in life, he is now getting around to reclaiming them again. When ET descended in 1982 Frame was just 18, but already a veteran. He had formed Aztec Camera and written We Could Send Letters and The Boy Wonders - "some of my best songs - in" East Kilbride at the age of 15. The bandís first single, Just Like Gold, was released on Postcard records when he was 16. At 18 heíd recorded his debut album High Land Hard Rain, moved to London and been lured onto the vast corporate rocks of Warner Brothers. He married an American girl when he was 19 and divorced in his 20s. Even when making his third album, Love, in New York - what he jokingly refers to as "mid-period Frame" - he was still only 21, directing Americaís top session musicians and holding court with record label bigwigs over lunch.
Suffice it to say he was always way ahead of the pack and accomplished beyond his years. Looking back, he says he sometimes finds it hard to fathom himself. Now aged 42, Frame still looks ridiculously well preserved, with only a ghost of grey in his stubble, but he is no longer the precocious boy wonder of yore. The passing of time has taken him to a place where he can relax a little, and he looks relieved. Like many other prodigals, he has spent much of his career trying to live down a general perception that he made his best work in his teens. A theory it is perpetuated out of convenience and nostalgia rather than anything more concrete. His last three albums - The North Star, Surf and his new record Western Skies, all made under his own name - are the equal of anything he ever made as Aztec Camera, but try telling the critics or the record-buying public that.
"Iíve heard people say that High Land Hard Rain is the classic album, and I used to think, ĎYeah, but thereís more to it than just that recordí," says a chipper Frame, sitting in an unobtrusively posh west London eaterie, washing down his vegetable risotto with a pot of tea. "Now I donít even care. If you make one classic album thatís not bad. The Velvet Underground made two or three, but most people donít make any. In fact, most people go to work and do something they donít particularly like."
"Going to work" in the conventional sense was never an option for a man who put all his eggs in one basket - "and smashed a few along the way when I got excited" - early on. Born in Clydebank in 1964 but raised in East Kilbride, Frame was a "bit of a surprise" to his ageing parents. His brother and two sisters were all a decade or more older than him and the age gap ensured a rich legacy of music - Beatles, Bowie, Bolan, Dylan - handed down to the young boy, but also a complex domestic dynamic. As "the golden child", Frame received the bulk of his parentsí attention, yet was often at the beck and call of his elder siblings. As he points out, when youíre five and your big brother is 15, thereís not much room for argument.
He grew up quickly partly because he had to fight his corner. A pupil of Duncanrig Secondary School in East Kilbride, by his early teens Frame was already losing interest in his academic studies and drifting away from many of his contemporaries.
Playing in clubs at night in the band he formed before Aztec Camera, making plans and talking to record companies, in the morning he would be sitting in classroom thinking: "What am I doing here with all these young people?" He made the classic choice between football and music, shunning the sectarian, laddish connotations of the former for the glamorous world of the latter. Rock God, one of the highlights of his new album, is a song of gratitude to those glam rock icons of his youth and their other-worldly appeal.
"I always thought it was hipper to be some sort of effete, pretentious layabout than it was to be some down-to-earth manís man," he says. "When I was young, East Kilbride could be a pretty grey place, and Iíd just put on these records and the whole world would burst into colour. Iím really, really grateful to them. Without them I would never have got it together and got a guitar. It inspired me to get out of there."
He left school at 16 and moved to London in 1982, where he has lived ever since. It was not a conventional passage from adolescence into young adulthood but, as he admits, "normal goes out the window when you form a band at 15 and start touring". There was a lot of pressure inherent in being signed to a major label so young. A lot of self-inflicted pressure, too, for someone like Frame, who comes across as a perfectionist, someone who likes to have all the angles covered and yet doesnít like to be perceived as doing anything as uncool as trying too hard.
Aztec Camera were never really a conventional last-gang-in-town band; it was entirely Frameís baby, shaped and moulded by him with a revolving cast of bit players. The aim was pop perfection presented with a stylish nonchalance, and Frame pulled it off more often than he had any right to expect, but there was always a tension between the pop aspirations and the artistic pretensions. The band attracted screaming girls and furrow-browed scribes in equal measure, embracing innocence and a little quiet but dedicated debauchery - "it wasnít cool to be too explicit about drugs and stuff back then" - along the way. The hits were sporadic but spanned the best part of a decade, from Oblivious in 1983, Somewhere In My Heart in 1988 to Good Morning Britain in 1991. Their author shamelessly admits nostalgia for that time.
"I donít think I could have possibly had any more fun," he smiles. "My philosophy was a bit like the drummer in Spinal Tap: have a good time all the time." But for all its pleasures, it was a life lived on the hoof, unbalanced, weighted almost entirely towards music, and Frame became competitive and a little obsessive. "When youíre young, where youíre going to live, what youíre going to eat, where youíre going to sleep, who youíre going to spend your time with arenít really that important - itís all about the music," he says. "I knew what I wanted and I was probably a bit over bearing. I always tried not to rant in public but my manager put up with a lot. It was all social awkwardness, insecurity and control-freakery.
"Itís hard when youíre 21 and youíre stoned and youíre trying to make records. I was only ever interested in guitars and music, and it was hard to fit in everyday living."
The upshot is that Frame has spent much of his 30s and early 40s "learning about myself", attempting to gain some kind of personal perspective and trying to fashion a balance in his life which works for him. The fruits of Aztec Camera appear to have left him comfortable without necessarily being rich. The romance of London clearly still enthralls him and he seems to live a nice life: a flat in Holland Park, good food, good company.
Now that he is off the road far more often than he is on it, he has become a creature of habit, taking comfort in the familiarity of his surroundings. Making music fits into a domestic routine of "walking the dog, burning the eggs, reading the paper and having a cup of tea". He has been going to the same cafť at least three days a week for years and orders the same sandwich every time.
"I left home very early and lost all my support when I was 16, and it was really hard to establish a routine - not that I was trying," he says. "So I think there is a part of me that just craves modern suburban middle-class normality. There is a part of me that really believes in that dream. That some day, things will be simple and youíll get up and wash the car with your kids and fulfil your obligations as a regular guy. My life has never really been like that. Iím edging towards it but itís backing away from me - I think it smells a rat! I would like kids. I would love to do all that. Well, I say I would like to do it, but Iím suspicious of myself."
Frame remains unmarried, having split up from his long-term girlfriend, photo grapher Hannah Grace Deller, last year. "Iím always breaking up with people," is all he offers, a little embarrassed at the fact he feels he still has to constantly explain why he doesnít have "the wife and kids" by his side.
Frame claims that since his 30s, quality of life and inter action with other people have taken precedence over music. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he is discovering that the two notions are not mutually exclusive. Dropped by Warner Brothers in the 1990s, he in turn dropped the Aztec Camera moniker: everything he has done since has come out under his own name and has made only minor ripples in the musical landscape, but has oozed self- assurance. The wonderful Surf in particular, released in 2002 to some of the best reviews of his career, was an indication that his music has become simpler and starker but more emotionally resonant.
He is enjoying the warmth and affection which now emits from his audience, and in return Frame - the ultra-professional control freak - is trying to become more vulnerable on-stage, to leave some of the angles open, perhaps even to surprise or scare himself. "Itís much more of a communal thing," he beams. "Itís a bit more grown-up and has a bit less of an edge to it, but people seem to like it and I come away feeling that Iíve made more of a connection. At the end of each gig I play Killermont Street, Somewhere In My Heart or Oblivious, and I just stand and play guitar and people sing back to me. An amazing feeling! So lovely. Now, why does that happen more now that Iím 42 and playing acoustic guitar than when I was 25 and wearing leather trousers and leaning over the monitors leering at people? I donít know, but Iím very, very grateful."
Western Skies is another beautiful Roddy Frame album, and will perhaps pull him a little further away from the edges of obscurity. He is rightly proud of it, pleased that his sister and nephew like it, but has "no expectations" of it achieving anything profound. Above all, he simply seems relaxed and genuinely pleased that he is still able to do what he wants to do.
"Anyone listening to all my albums back-to-back might come away with the idea that Iím a manic depressive, but I donít take myself or the music so seriously any more," he says. "Iím just happy to still be doing it. It sounds pathetic, but I really am. The circle turns all the time. If youíre still hanging on to the carousel when it comes around again, people think, ĎAh, he was alright! Maybe I will go and see him after all.í" He pours some more tea into his cup and smiles. "I think thatís about the most you can hope for, really."