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Borrowed Books album is latest from member of legendary Inverness band the Cateran

By Margaret Chrystall

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LONGER READ: The story of the musical legacy from Inverness band of the Eighties and Nineties, the Cateran, continues as one member of the band releases a new album

IT seems incredible that in a long and impressive music career, former Inverness singer, songwriter and guitarist Cam Fraser is releasing his first CD.

Debut album Shorting Out And Longing by Borrowed Books.
Debut album Shorting Out And Longing by Borrowed Books.

It’s with his latest band Borrowed Books, their debut album Shorting Out And Longing which has already had reviewers reaching for the superlatives. Former BBC broadcaster Tom Morton says the album is “Reflective, melodic, but with the berserk crunch and twang of vintage punk ready to erupt at the drop of a Telecaster”.

But it is the CD part that is the first.

As a member of legendary Inverness band the Cateran, Cam released three albums on vinyl between 1986 and 1989. And his musical life has had some truly starry moments, including the Cateran joining Nirvana on the 1989 UK tour that broke the American grunge heroes .

Borrowed Books playing at Leith Depot with Cam Fraser (left).
Borrowed Books playing at Leith Depot with Cam Fraser (left).

“After Husker Du split up, we also did a gig with Grant Hart and at that point Husker Du and Grant Hart were the biggest alt.rock band in the world. They were going to be completely eclipsed by The Pixies and Nirvana. But at that point Husker Du were a really big deal and we had been compared to them, really from the very first thing that we did – to my huge irritation, because I could never really see the connection.

“Then we end up playing with bloody Grant Hart!” Cam laughed. “But that felt a bigger deal because he was a big name.”

Cam also booked The Proclaimers’ first gig – fellow Cateran member and Invernessian, the late Kai Davidson was the duo’s first manager.

Cam said: “It was in an arts centre in Craigmillar in Edinburgh.

“I had forgotten that till Kai’s funeral they reminded me of that.

“I must have been one of the very first people to see the Proclaimers because Kai took me round to their flat in Abbey Hill and said ‘You should hear what Craig and Charlie are doing – it’s the most amazing thing!’ because he had been in the band with them.

“I remember sitting in their bedsit and went through to the bedroom and the two of them played, I think it was probably Letter From America.

“They hadn’t done any gigs at that point and Kai was obviously really involved, They were just working on these songs.

The Cateran ended up touring with The Proclaimers, The Proclaimers were the support.

“They were just so easy to have with us going places,” Cam said. “We were playing to kind of punk audiences – and they loved Craig and Charles. There was never any question.

“We were cheerfully blown off the stage by them, but because they were doing something so different it was never a feeling of ‘Oh!’ – Cam makes a disappointed noise. Just ‘Wow! They did it again!’.”

The Cateran – from left – Cameron Fraser, Kai Davidson, Murdo MacLeod, Andy Milne and Sandy MacPherson.
The Cateran – from left – Cameron Fraser, Kai Davidson, Murdo MacLeod, Andy Milne and Sandy MacPherson.

Cam had been the one to trigger the setting up of the first Nirvana tour, as his day-job working for Rough Trade meant he had sent a copy of their first single Love Buzz to the Cateran’s agent, saying Nirvana might be a good band for them to tour with – and UK dates were set up with Nirvana and fellow Americans Tad.

Cam said: “So when we set out to do the tour – and I say this because it sounds like one of these things you make up, but it is actually true – that tour came around because I was working for Rough Trade and one part of my job was importing and exporting records I would buy from other people.

“There was a guy up in Washington State called Calvin Johnson – frontman of band Beat Happening - who ran a label called K Records. Every so often they would do limited edition seven and 10-inch singles in little plastic bags and I would buy some from him, usually it was the Beat Happening.

“I remember him saying ‘Cameron there is this really new local band up here they aren’t my sort of thing but you might like them’. I said ’Alright Calvin, I’ll take 25’.

“And that was the very first Nirvana single Love Buzz. I took 25 and everyone in the office said ‘That sounds a bit like you!’.

“I sent them out to people like music journalist Keith Cameron at Sounds and sent them to various other people and one of the people I sent them to was The Cateran’s booking agent who had two bands, Russell. He was working out of a bedsit in Nottingham and he only had two bands and The Cateran were his best band! So I said ‘Russell, we should set up a tour with these guys because they sound really good’ and he said ‘Yeah, you’re right these are really good and they would go really well together’. And Russell Warby did set up the tour.

“And Russell is now vice president international of the William Morris Group and the agent for Foo Fighters, Jack White, The Strokes – and is one of the biggest agents in the world.

“Every now and again I will get a call from Russell before his Vampire Rock Weekend saying ‘Come out, come out, come out and play!’

“He always says ‘I will never forget you sending me that seven-inch single’.

The Cateran with - from left - Murdo MacLeod, Kai Davidson, Andy Milne and Cameron Fraser.
The Cateran with - from left - Murdo MacLeod, Kai Davidson, Andy Milne and Cameron Fraser.

The tour was set up and the Cateran headed off with Nirvana and fellow American band Tad.

“It was such a small deal at the start of that tour, but by the end of it – when we played the School of African and Oriental Studies, which was just before they went off to do Europe, between Newcastle Riverside and London – about eight gigs, it had exploded. And that gig was absolutely jam-packed,” Cam said.

“At that point, it actually had quite a flattening effect on me, because I kind of realised that we had been playing hundreds of gigs, we’d played everywhere, not really making any money out of it. And though Nirvana were fantastic, I kind of thought ‘They are not making any money either’. So we would sit after sound checks and compare how poor we all were,” he laughed.

“I kind of knew that I couldn’t go back to doing that at that point.

“We just got tired of working so hard cos even back then, bands like us didn’t get paid anything. It was like Nirvana didn’t get paid anything either. They were making all their money out of selling the infamous T-shirt at the time.

“So I kind of packed in relatively shortly after that – and less than a year later, they were the biggest band in the world.”

After hundreds of gigs, but making no money, the Cateran finished and Cam stepped back from bands for a while, moving into a career in film and television in screenwriting and animation.

“When I started out in the band I really had no ambitions. My actual ambition – and this sounds kind of w**ky, but I don’t mean it to be – as a teenager, I really liked dark Eastern European novelists like Kafka and Hesse and stuff like that. So my big ambition was to go to tour in Eastern Europe.

“We never really got to Eastern Europe, but we got to play in Berlin three times, I think. And that’s it, that’s all I wanted. We thought it would be nice to get paid and make a living at it but in terms of what I actually started out with, it was really just to travel a bit … Starting up here, you were inspired by people like Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground obviously and that’s all we wanted to be. We didn’t really want to have a career as musicians.

“By the time we got to play Berlin a few times, my boxes were ticked.

“So Nirvana becoming global, you almost felt a bit sorry for them because that wasn’t the starting point for them. Nor the starting point for The Cateran. It was something that you were propelled into.”

But as his career in film and TV developed, Cam continued to write songs, though not recording or gigging.

“I have played music pretty much non-stop,” he revealed.

“After The Cateran there was a period where I had to get myself together because it had been really intensive – I was also working for Rough Trade at the time and that was my day job, evening job, weekend job.

“I fondly remembered that nearly all my holidays were taken up with me going off on tour with the Cateran!

“It was all-consuming and I had definitely reached the point of being burned out a bit and definitely needing a break from music altogether.

“When when I got back into playing, I was finding I really enjoyed music when I was playing with friends, but I’d lost all desire to go out gigging really. There was lots of talk me going out gigging, but it was very easy for that not to happen.

“Then another good friend of mine from Scottish group Fini Tribe, Davy Miller, he and I had been colleagues at Rough Trade, though our musical tastes are kind of polar, we are really good friends – he said ‘I know someone else who has the same terrible guitar-based taste in music as you … Ray Neal, he used to be in an American jangle pop rock band…’.

“Davy is smart enough and has known me long enough to know that this was a good match.

“He said ‘You should meet Ray!’.

“We met up and discovered we have a lot in common and we started playing and two things that Ray said were profoundly shifting: ‘You should turn down the guitars’ – we were still playing punk guitars – and ‘Why aren’t we gigging cos these are really good songs and people would enjoy hearing them?’.

“At that point I said ‘Yes’ to both things. And it has really propelled on from then.

“Ray had been in Miracle Legion which had toured across the US for years. To a certain extent their career mirrors the Cateran.

“Most people said really nice things about them, they played loads of gigs, and had a really good live profile and people really liked them, but they never really clicked into that next level like The Pixies or REM or all these sort of people. It never really happened.

“So we had these kind of matching careers and we had this enthusiasm to get back playing and that has been going really, really well.”

The name Borrowed Books explains an important part of the ethos behind the band.

Cam said: “It was always the idea of being quite a fluid band and picking people from different places to be part of the thing. So I liked the idea – maybe more so when we were growing up.

“Then, people swapped books and records all the time. And you learned about a new thing by borrowing somebody’s records or books.”

Borrowed Books' Cam Fraser.
Borrowed Books' Cam Fraser.

Cam talks excitedly about the Inverness he remembers arriving in before the Cateran was formed. His family ran what became the Heathmount hotel in Kingsmills.

“I came up to Inverness from being down in Edinburgh. My parents had moved when I was about 14.

“I came up and went to the Other Record Shop and realised that the folk in the record shop, Sandy MacPherson – who was the first singer in The Cateran – behind the counter had a far more world view of music than people I knew in Edinburgh, who were very localised.

“Sandy was listening to Black Flag, Minor Threat.

“I kind of thought I was coming up from Edinburgh to be a kind of cool guy from the city,” he laughed. “But they were much more international and cosmopolitan in their interest in music, because in Inverness back then, it was such an effort to get to a gig in Edinburgh or Glasgow, that it was as easy to listen to music from Los Angeles or New York or Washington State as it was to listen to bands from Greenock or wherever.

“The taste up here was far more eclectic.

“So we formed something that represented, not bands that we had seen or that were playing in Inverness, but bands that just inspired you from having great records. So the Cateran was … just detached from other bands and taking influences from everywhere else.

“I think that is one of the nice things about being from outwith the mainstreams.

“When I went to work for Rough Trade I then realised that towns everywhere had record shops like that because I used to ring them up and try and sell them Smiths records! Much easier to sell Smiths ones than Cateran ones,” laughed Cam.

“For a while my job was to phone the record shops up and then for a while I was repping for record companies.

“Towns, whether it was Renfrew, Hamilton, Aberdeen, Inverness, Elgin, Perth, every town had got its record shop.”

I remember Kai towards the end of the Cateran time sitting down and saying ‘Do you realise you have done about 500 gigs?’ in various things we had done together.

“I remember saying that to Ray and he said ‘We lost count at 2,000’.

“But we had both played a lot and I felt really stupid after the first gig because I really liked paying to people. But I had forgotten that part.

Ray Neal, Borrowed Books.
Ray Neal, Borrowed Books.

“When I had left the music side, I kind of stumbled into the world of television and then into animation. I still technically have an animation studio.”

Among many projects, Cam produced the award-winning animation Monkey Love Experiments made by animator Will Anderson from close to Dingwall with Ainslie Henderson.

The three still work together with a project currently under way.

“I was introduced to Will, partly because of my Highland connection, music connection, as a professional mentor just after he had graduated."

But the move into film and TV for Cam seems quite a move from music, but he explains the common link that led there.

“When I came out of music, I realised that the thing about music that had been really important to me was the songwriting part.

“So I wanted to find another form of writing.

“I still remember to this day – I tell the story sometimes in film and animation terms – reading in an article in one of the Sunday papers, somebody saying ‘Screenwriting is really easy! It’s all in the present tense and it’s only 30,000 words’.

“I hadn’t realised they were being facetious and I thought ‘Present tense? I can do that!’.

“Then ‘And 30,000 words? That’s a lot less than a novel!’.

“So I became a screenwriter on what would seem a lazy transition from music and then went on to discover it is the hardest and possibly most demanding, most rigorous form of writing there is!

“It is every bit as frustrating and mind-numbingly difficult as any other form of creativity.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best producers in the UK. And I wouldn’t try and put anybody off trying to write a screenplay because it’s an accessible thing, you just have to tell a story in as few and as evocative words as you possibly can.”

So it is a bit like writing a song?

“It’s very similar!” Cam said. “Screenplays and songs, it’s about pulling out – it doesn’t have to be THE truth, but it just has to be a truth – something that feels real and resonates.”

But Borrowed Books has refired Cam’s love of creating music.

“I had been making stuff for Disney and the BBC, and that side had gone really well, the studio had won lots of awards and things like that, so that felt creatively fulfilling. But I had forgotten that actually, I much preferred music.

“And I think that has been one of the really nice things over the last year has just been realising that.

“I like making film and TV and I love working with animators, they are a particularly lovely breed.”

Bassist Aly Barr.
Bassist Aly Barr.

But the birth of Borrowed Books has triggered the odd personal musical milestone along the way.

“I did my first ever – even in a party – first solo acoustic performance.

“I have always been a band person. But an old Cateran friend invited me down to play at the Hope and Anchor in London which is a fantastic venue, a place where The Clash and The Damned and The Buzzcocks all played - U2’s first-ever London gig was in the Hope and Anchor.

“So I got to do it at my ripe old age, my first-ever acoustic gig in the Hope and Anchor, so that was brilliantly exciting. That was really nice and it made me think, ‘Well, I could now literally play anywhere!’.”

Here is the album's first track Comes Around:

Now with a year of gigs behind Borrowed Books, they have a settled line-up that also includes Aly Barr on bass and vocals, Chris Archer on drums and Colin Hood on piano and vocals.

And the hope is that the band will play Cam’s former hometown of Inverness to showcase the debut album - once Covid-19 makes gigs possible again.

The Market Bar might be a good spot …

Cam remembers being there with Sandy MacPherson, the Cateran’s first singer.

“That was where Sandy and I decided to start a band and more or less walked round the corner to the practice room next to the railway station!”

Cam singing as the Cateran cover Gene Clark of The Byrds' She Don't Care About Time:

Cam was back with Sandy and his brother John playing a gig there with their side project band a while ago, which brought back the memories.

“At the back of the bar upstairs there is still an iconic Cateran and Proclaimers poster!

“So Borrowed Books is gagging to come back to play in Inverness – we have many friends up there and if some people turned up that would be really nice.”

The Borrowed Books album is available digitally on iTunes, Spotify and Bandcamp – with a limited edition CD here: https://borrowedbooks.bandcamp.com/album/shorting-out-and-longing

Find out more on: Facebook: borrowedbooks

Twitter: @BooksBorrowed

Hear first track from Shorting Out And Longing, Mountains In Oceans:

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