Climbing Frame, in particular Roddy Frame, songwriter, guitarist and dead cert for '84.
"It's good to see you're covering pop," says Roddy Frame as he leafs through the Kajagoogoo issue of One Two and sinks deeper into an enormous piece of upholstery which serves only to accentuate his small frame. He mentions, too, the tendency of other musical instrument magazines to concentrate their efforts on "Ronnie Dio and Yes," and generally applauds us.
Fair enough: let's return the compliment and praise this thoughtful songwriter who strums mostly acoustic guitars amid a mixture of Sixties West-coast flavourings and straightforward drums/bass/guitar/keyboard arrangements. Thus was born Aztec Camera's "High Land Hard Rain" LP, issued on Rough Trade last year, together with one of 1983's best and most infectious 45s, "Oblivious". WEA snapped up the enthusiastic Roddy — who now seems to personify Aztec Camera — and the international record company appear set on exploiting him for wider success. Already, the WEA-labelled "Oblivious" creeps up the singles charts. For now, Tony Bacon poses the questions.
ONE TWO: It was refreshing to hear such prominent acoustic guitar on much of 'High Land' — was that a natural instrument to use, did you learn on acoustic?
RODDY FRAME: Yeah, I learned on acoustic first, and I moved to a Telecaster copy when I heard Wilko Johnson (then with Dr Feelgood). It did actually sound quite like a Telecaster. This was 1976 — an electric seemed like the thing you should have. I don't think the acoustic on 'High Land' was a conscious thing, I just like acoustic guitar. It may have been conscious in the beginning, thinking I was gonna go back and play acoustic guitar, trying to be contrary when everyone else was getting more into effects again. Acoustic sounded refreshing to me, and the more I got into it I realised that there's more to it. A lot of people use it for surface, and superficial reasons.
ONE TWO: It's often used almost as percussion, just a rhythmic thing.
FRAME: Yeah, and a lot of people use it for fashion. I'm sure the Alarm could sound better if they just used Les Pauls, because their acoustic guitars sound like Les Pauls! They're just thrashed. That's what I do, it's not for fashion: if there's a song that would sound good on a Flying-V then I'd use that.
ONE TWO: How does a song suggest whether it should have acoustic or electric guitar?
FRAME: It's down to the sound I want, and also which records it was derivative of. 'Pillar And Post', say, was derivative of the Clash and Tamla Motown, things like that, and there's not a lot of room in a song like that for full chords, so I wanted that sort of electric 'chunga chunga' sound.
ONE TWO: Acoustic guitars take up a lot of room.
FRAME: In the mix, yeah. I'm aware of that — I didn't used to be, I am now!
ONE TWO: Where did you make High Land?
FRAME: Well, we were together for two or three years before we even recorded the album, and when we did get to do it we recorded it in three weeks at the International Christian Communication studio in Eastbourne. Good studio, right by the sea. It was a rush, but that was good because sometimes you can hear a bit of pressure in the album, I think it sounds quite spontaneous. It was 24-track and we didn't deliberately go for an old-fashioned sound or anything, it just happened that way.
ONE TWO: Who's John Brand, credited for co-production with keyboard player Bernie Clarke?
FRAME: He used to be an engineer at Trident, he was there for a long time and worked with a lot of people. That was what impressed me — when you're working fast you need a good engineer much more than a good ideas producer. John's really good at that. I used this really cheap acoustic guitar and I think it was a bit of a headache for him, but he didn't let on. It was a Masano, a Japanese copy of a Martin, £150 new. I got it a couple of months before we did the album.
ONE TWO: It sounds like the acoustic is layered up here and there on the album.
FRAME: It's a really nice instrument to double-track, that's another thing. Because a lot of the time I used that slightly percussive thing where you can hear the plectrum scraping each string — we've double-tracked that so it's even more percussive, because the two guitars end up slightly out of time.
ONE TWO: Did you record the guitar simply miked up?
FRAME: Yeah, I always do that. See, I've got seme Ovations now and I've tried to DI them, but they sound very electric. Tell the truth I don't like Ovation guitars but they're great for playing live, they're a sort of compromise. They sound more like an acoustic than anything else I've used live. I think what you want with an acoustic guitar is a definite resonance, and what you don't want when you're playing live is resonance because the drums and everything else just set it off all the time, it feeds back. So Ovation have made this compromise, made it sound as much like an acoustic as they can while cutting out so much of the resonance.
ONE TWO: How many Ovations do you use live?
FRAME: Two six-strings, Artists or something, with the cutaway, and the Adamas 12-string. I've had them about nine months now. I bought them for playing live, that's the only reason. I've had a lot of use out of them, a hundred gigs or so. They've just been across America, temperature changes and all that — I took them out of the van and they'd be absolutely roasted. The Adamas doesn't have a truss-rod, so I said to the guy in Andy's, how are you going to set the neck back? And he said, I don't know, I'll have to see the gaffer. All it has is a strengthening bar — you know what a 12-string's like anyway, and the action's getting really high! I'm distraught! I think I should go and see Ovation and ask them what I should do — I'll tell them they should sponsor me and just give me new guitars every time the guitars go wrong. I'll say they're great...
ONE TWO: What other guitars do you use?
FRAME: I've got a really old Gibson Scotty Moore, gold, Gibson only made 1700 in the Fifties. It cost me about a thousand pounds, but it's in really nice condition. That's moving a bit as well. I'd have thought it would have settled by now. I got that just before we went to America, in a shop called f-hole. Beautiful guitar. It's like a gold 175, completely gold with those old cream single-coil pickups and a really lovely scratchplate that you usually can't find because they break so easily. It's a deep-bodied semi with the single-coil sound — the treble pickup's wild, the Pistols or something, and then you get this really nice Wes Montgomery tone out of the bass pickup.
ONE TWO: Do you prefer semis for your electric sounds?
FRAME: Yeah, I always play them, I really like them — although I do have an old Gibson Melody Maker. I had a Gibson 175 before the Scotty Moore, but I smashed it up when we were in Europe. There were lots of hippies at the gig.
ONE TWO: It's good that you're using the guitars, anyway; some people would just put the Scotty Moore up on the wall.
FRAME: Yeah, I hate the idea of people buying a guitar and putting it in the cupboard; why don't they just leave it in the shop and let someone play it? The whole idea of buying that was cos it looks great, sounds great, and plays great. If the Scotty Moore got broken I'd be quite upset, but I'd be much more upset if one of my friends broke his arm. It's a guitar — there's lots.
ONE TWO: What other electrics have you got?
FRAME: I've just sold a Telecaster which I didn't like, it was pretty thin. Telecasters are the best shape for me, the best neck and everything — but the sound of this one... Maybe I should try one with humbuckers? I had to get a quick replacement for the 175 that I smashed, and the only shop that was open had a Telecaster, so I had it. It was a terrible colour as well, orange. It looked like Habitat.
ONE TWO: Do you experiment much with chords, or do you find yourself using the same patterns?
FRAME: Now I'm getting more into a style of writing. Just before 'High Land' I was experimenting with chords, but then I tried to get back to basics, and wrote the song 'Down The Dip'. That's really basic and was the last song I wrote for the album. Now what I'm doing is using really cliched chord progressions and then putting in two or three jazz chords. But I'm not a jazz writer — I write pop songs. I make up most of the chords, I hate it when people say: what's that one? I don't know. Usually when I'm writing I start with a C or a G and take it from there, those open chords are my favourites. Because I write on acoustic, that means all the midrange stuff is open, those chords fill that in, then lead guitar parts at the top and bass at the bottom. It's much more simple — I used to write all over the place, up and down the neck.
ONE TWO: Do you write things down, lyrics and chords?
FRAME: What happens usually is that I'll get a tune first and keep playing it, and the lyric will come into my head. I always try to get something that's sub-conscious, or... not as hippy as that... intuitive. I'll do that, and after I've written it all down I'll bring in the critical factor and cut out the bits I don't like. If I get a tune or some lyrics I like I'll stick it on cassette — a Walkman or something. I've got a lot of tapes lying all over the country, some in America, bits of me going: "Um um um-um-um um um um-um...". I'm sure that one day someone'll find them and I'll be really embarrassed, there's my mum shouting, "Your tea's ready!" over the top, "OK!" But anyway, I used to be more technical and precious about writing songs — now I think I'm getting better at it, and I'm doing it quicker, too.
ONE TWO: What amp did you use on the American tour?
FRAME: I use a Roland at the moment, a JC, but I was thinking about using one of those great big Marshalls, maybe with some effects boxes. I only use the chorus, really, on the Roland. I'm also getting into using feedback, not heavy metal feedback, more like Velvet Underground. The Scotty Moore's great for feedback. The sort of feedback I use I just stand right up against the amp and just let it work, distorting. It's more atonal, for want of a better word, more noisy than that really controlled smart-arse feedback. It's not Jeff Beck. I use it on things like 'We Could Send Letters', where the classical solo comes in, I do that. It's like a cross between Tom Verlaine and the Velvets.
ONE TWO: You tend to use guitar more chordally than for single-line stuff, but how do you go about working out the breaks on 'We Could Send Letters', say, or 'Oblivious'?
FRAME: They're really structured. I think I stole the line for 'Oblivious' and a lot of the guitar in there from 'Between Clark And Hilldale' by Love, that trumpet solo that he sings along with. I started bending and you can hear the guitar going out of tune toward the end of the solo. I usually belt hell out of the acoustics. I'm always breaking strings — I get carried away. On the 'We Could Send Flowers' solo I had certain parts, but I did little fills in between; all the runs are quite cliched, it's all just scales.
ONE TWO: Do you practice scales at all?
FRAME: No. There's really simple things that lots of people can do that have never dawned on me to do — I use lots and lots of diminished chords but I've never played a diminished run. I was watching Malcolm from Orange Juice doing one the other night. Robert Fripp's got a much more academic style, he says you should learn every single style that you can. But I think it would be boring for me to learn to play heavy metal guitar, because I don't like it. I wouldn't get much out of it in the end. It might even encourage you to use something you don't like.
ONE TWO: You'll be recording again soon?
FRAME: Yeah, they're talking about trying to get Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to do the next batch of songs, but I'm not sure about who's going to do the album. I quite fancy a guy called Lenny Waronker, used to do Ry Cooder and did some work on the new Paul Simon. Langer and Winstanley have done so many great British pop singles. At first I said, I know what we'll get and it won't be very experimental. Someone at WEA said, yeah, we'll get a fucking great pop single! And I said, right enough. They have done some weird stuff — they did the Teardrop Explodes second album, Wilder.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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