Top image: Photography by Chris Rhodes
Alex Cameron didn’t think anyone was watching his gig at Silencio in Paris some years ago, but he did what he always does; he put on a show. Little did he know just how important that night would be in shaping the course of his next steps as an artist, with the support slot for Foxygen extending to 50 shows opening for the band in the States, and Jonathan Rado (one half of Foxygen) producing his sophomore record Forced Witness. As he discusses below, “We’ve been doing the same amount of work we always have, it’s just the rooms are different and they’re full of people.”
Alex and his partner in crime, Roy Molloy, prove that with a hard work ethic, luck is bound to come your way. After signing to Secretly Canadian, the Australian musician’s 2013 debut album Jumping the Shark also got a new lease on life, and his fictitious folklore about sleazy men online was taken to stages around the world, inspiring collaborations with the likes of Angel Olsen, Jemima Kirke and Brandon Flowers. Currently on tour, he’s enlisted the help of friends new and old whom contribute to his vision. But it works both ways. Alex and his team are out there making it happen, but they like to pay it forward. You can’t be selfish in music, not even when it comes to the songs themselves. Alex’s take the form of characters, and love them or loathe them; they intrigue about the human condition.
Clementine Zawadzki: It seems like the release of Forced Witness was a real turning point. How has the process been for you?
Alex Cameron: It’s been steady. We started from a grass roots level and rented a car in America and started taking as many gigs as we could. We had to sort of bypass getting radio rotation in Australia because like… I was never very good in school, I was even worse at university… I tried to go to university and I didn’t get through one semester, I just wasn’t very smart in that way. I don’t like systems and I don’t like guidelines, so I found trying to fit into a ‘radio sound’ was difficult, not that I didn’t try. So we focused on our live show and gained an audience through playing in nightclubs and bars, and that took the better part of three years to get a handle on it and get a record deal to put it out, so it’s just a different route. It takes longer and you hope that it’s sustainable in it’s own way. We’ve been doing the same amount of work we always have, it’s just the rooms are different and they’re full of people.
CZ: You’ve been touring relentlessly.
AC: We’ve done 70 shows this year and it’s only April, so we’ve been working.
CZ: Have you got any advice for being on the road?
AC: It’s just about personalities and dynamics. If you aren’t the kind of person that can deal with other people’s moods and if you take the moods of other people personally, then you’re not going to survive out here on the road. Even though you’re in a van with eight other people at a time, it’s a very solitary experience, you have to know what kind of person you are, the space you like, and you have to also allow other people to have that as well. I’ve been sitting next to the same person for six months now on a bus. We’ve got a pretty good dynamic at the moment, I feel. My uncle gave me some great advice a couple of years ago, just manage your expectations with your work ethic. If you’re a hard worker you can give yourself high expectations, but if you know naturally that you’re a slow worker or you only want a certain thing out of life, then don’t go expecting the world, because the world doesn’t just come to you. It’s pretty basic stuff I guess, but that’s how it is.
CZ: Do you write while you’re on tour?
AC: When song ideas come to mind I keep notes, but the real stuff happens in the studio and at home when I’ve actually got time for my mind to sort of allow it to go there. I’m trying to preserve energy out here. I’ve got to work on stage every night. Often during the day I’m just resting or looking out the window.
CZ: You worked with Rado on Forced Witness. Have you thought about the next album yet?
AC: Rado was really instrumental to making that connection between Jumping the Shark and the label. H really feels like family, he’s got such an incredible take on what my songwriting is, so for me it would be hard to think of making a record without him right now. I’ve got the dream team in mind for the next record and they’ve all expressed interest, so we’re just looking at dates now. I’d like to be in the studio by the end of the year, but we’ll see what happens.
CZ: In terms of your live show, it really is a show. How do you view gigs?
AC: We try to bring a level of energy and engage people. Something I’ve discovered recently in the last year or so is that it takes emotional preparation – not meditation or anything crazy like that – but you have to have an understanding of how your emotions respond to a room full of people having a good time. It changes from night to night, but we’ve only just this year started to contemplate how it’s sort of impacting our mental health and it’s something that I gear myself up for. It’s animalistic and I’m just trying to learn how to deal with the consequences of that.
CZ: We have to talk about your dancing too, you have some signature moves. Did you ever take lessons?
AC: I think I’m a better dancer than my body allows. I watch footage back sometimes and I’m like, “Jeez, I thought I was working 100 percent,” but it doesn’t look that way. I never used to like dancing. In high school I never did it because, you know, if I had a girlfriend she would always want to dance and I was never into it, but then I realised it was because they were playing sort of Ministry of Sound or something like that and I never vibed with it. I started to go to parties when I was a little older, like eighteen or nineteen, out of high school, people started playing the music I like and it was like, “Shit, I can dance to this stuff!” My mum and dad dance when they go to weddings and parties and things like that, so I would always watch them. They dance with their hips and their hands. My dad moves his shoulders. It’s kind of drunk dancing in a way, letting loose a little bit. Just trying to give off a positive vibe and bring the house down.
“If someone comes to a show, pays for a ticket, walks into the room, stands there and watches someone perform, my view – is not the view of everyone – but my view is why not give them a show?”
CZ: When Jumping the Shark was initially released, you had this persona or concept of a failed musician. Is that idea still something you tap into?
AC: If someone comes to a show, pays for a ticket, walks into the room, stands there and watches someone perform, my view – is not the view of everyone – but my view is why not give them a show? Why not take them somewhere? Add an element of drama and theatre to it. I’m trying to evoke emotions here and people don’t relate to things because they’re about themselves. Often if something’s too close to home, I can’t enjoy it, or I notice that other people can’t. I think what we do as a band is offer a vision of something, and if it ends up being a metaphor for someone or touching some sort of nerve, I think it stands for a vision more than it is an absolute individual personal story. It’s more a reflection of what we’re seeing, which is always distorted to some degree. I feel like I’ve hit a really nice flow, and that is between absolute reality and complete fiction.
Clementine: Your songs are often categorised or explained as being about the sleazy undercurrent of life, but do you think it’s an undercurrent or simply reality?
Alex: When you are writing a song, you’re already part of a severely privileged percentage of humans that have ever existed, and when you are recording a song that increases even more, so my idea is that I want to write songs that are powerful and are folk stories in a lot of ways. They’re not necessarily tales about my life, they’re tales about humans, about people. They’re characters. I don’t necessarily have to find a relationship with their views or their way of speaking . . . I mean it’s all dialogue in conversation. Forced Witness is people talking to each other and the way they talk isn’t necessarily the way they think, it’s just the way they project who they think they should be, or want to be, or how they’re feeling. An angry person isn’t always a bad person in the same way a bad person isn’t always an angry person, you’ve got to find the intricacies between what makes a person say disgusting things and what makes a disgusting person, and that’s where you find the tragedy in the way a human communicates with others.
“It’s animalistic and I’m just trying to learn how to deal with the consequences of that.”
Clementine: You’ve collaborated with Angel Olsen, Brandon Flowers [The Killers], Kirin J Callinan. What do you look for in these instances?
Alex: You can’t have your ego on the line. You’re working for the song; the song isn’t working for you. My ultimate collaborators are the ones willing to sacrifice their own ideas for a better one. A song isn’t a blank piece of paper and you wait for stuff to fit. The song already exists; you’re just trying to find the pieces that go into it.