Alex Cameron’s show at Paradiso Noord, a fairly new expansion venue of the legendary Paradiso, is sold out tonight. Though stylish and sophisticated from the outside – with nice restaurant and lobby to boot – the dressing room area stills need some touching up. Right now, this part of the building looks like a cold warehouse complex adorned with tubular lighting, the kind of scenery Russian mobsters do their seedy business in. It’s easy to get lost in this brick maze; I half expect to bump into Teddy KGB, John Malkovich’s character from Rounders. Some of the sewage drains still stick out from below the ceilings.
Me and Cameron’s tour manager follow the piping to a claustrophobic room containing two benches, plus a wooden table with some bottles of water on top. Not exactly my ideal setting to interview Alex Cameron and Roy Molloy, his sax playing, poker-faced business partner. It would be better someplace lavish; on a yacht off the coast of Malibu, in a hot tub, with a humongous DJ Khaled-approved champagne bottle in our midst. Admittedly, Cameron’s work does arouse that inverse exploration of sheer decadence.
For example, the cover of his 2016 debut LP Jumping The Shark depicts Cameron as a washed-up, decrepit entertainer still clinging onto the cheap thrills of fame’s yesteryear. But instead of pointing the finger with an obvious wink-wink-nudge-nudge, his narratives humanize people with a fairly warped moral compass, crooning these Suicide-meets-Je Suis Un Rock Star-era Bill Wyman anthems with absolute conviction and poetic elegance. And by cause and effect, Cameron makes the listener question his or her own perceived moral high ground. Give or take, that’s an incredible feat to pull off, especially in this reactionary post-Weinstein era, with people hypervigilant and geared up to lash out at the next act of injustice.
With second LP Forced Witness landing in this flammable modern discourse, scrutiny hasn’t eluded Cameron himself: his alpha male protagonists are the embodiment of toxic masculinity and narcissism. But Cameron is a poised storyteller, and by choosing that bird’s eye view, he deliberately blurs the line between himself and the persona non grata he depicts in his music, almost like a method actor. He doesn’t exclude the innate desperation, the tragedies, and dreams to portray the humanity behind these coarse skin-deep effigies. To boost that sense of discomfort even further, on Forced Witness, he removes the old man-makeup and Underworld Roy Orbison look, writing and performing these raw testimonials as his own charismatic, swashbuckling self.
As Cameron and Molloy sit down on the sofa to my left in this squalid concrete room, they initially seem standoffish and tepid. Cameron leans back, eyeing me with ‘bring it’-kind of incredulity. Molloy meanwhile, perches himself exactly like he does on stage; unmoved, arms folded, as if he’s waiting for his cue to pantomime Chevy Chase in the You Can Call Me Al-video. Last time I saw them perform (in WORM, Rotterdam), I was shuffling like a giddy idiot to the music’s flamboyant Springsteen-pastiche, largely ignorant of Cameron’s graphic character sketches. Would I experience an Alex Cameron-show differently tonight, with the subject matter now in the back of my mind? “Why explain our lyrics to the audience?”, I follow, after a line of stammering half-questions.
Cameron sighs, slightly piqued. “I like to give the audience some explanation. I don’t mind doing that. I’m not concerned about writing something that’s clear, because I know the songs are clear. There’s no ambiguity to my songs. I guess it’s a tradition in live performance. People pay money to come see you play, which is an opportunity to get insight into why you wrote a certain songs. More so than just playing them. But there isn’t a huge amount of talking during the set at this point.” Cameron then recoils at the question I fumble out next: whether it’s a moot point for people to know where the narrator ends and the character begins.
Indeed, both he and Molloy are giving this interviewer a hard time, and really… it’s hard to blame them. Though rooted in the reality that binds us, a lot of great art is autonomous in its conception. But it's also judged as a product of its time. The release of Forced Witness in the Trump-era, a period when the digressions of the rich and powerful are divulged on a large scale, is significant, even if it was unforeseen.
Has Cameron witnessed the discourse around his new record closely these past two months? “Well, it has been interesting, in terms of writing…”, Cameron replies irksomely, before being promptly interrupted by a loud thud and splash through the exposed drainage.
Molloy and Cameron suddenly burst out laughing.
“Was that someone’s turd?”, I ask.
Cameron: “...I was thinking just that.”
Roy Molloy: “It was really smacking around the corners…”
As I frantically attempt to re-ask my question, Cameron and Molloy are clearly relishing this swift moment of slapstick amidst all the serious hoi polloi.
Cameron: “I wonder whose turd that was...”
Molloy: “That’s a bit silly… you will probably have to wait a long time to find out whose turd it was. I actually used to work at this office in the downstairs building. My boss’ office was upstairs from my workplace. And when it ticked 9.30 on the dot, after he’d get his cigarettes and his coffee, you could hear the plumbing. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as this, but you could tell exactly when he had done his giant 65-year-old man dump.”
“It’s just like being in the olden times, you know”, Cameron, a man who once said in a MySpace interview he would rather focus on the little things over worrying about the big picture, one show, or “one bowel movement at a time”.
Cameron and Mollow often write with wry charm about the quotidian inner workings of touring life on their Facebook page. “People assumin' this act's run like a beautiful cruise ship, a powerful and complex engine, staffed by diligent Europeans, me an' Al Cam reclinin' in the sun on the upper deck. Those people are wrong. This boat is rowed by a light, muscular, and highly cost-effective crew,” Molloy quipped recently, in an entry on March 1st. There go my lofty and romantic visions of hot tubs and pearly white yachts.
That being said, being humble and honest about your work is a much better look than the whole Kirk Lazarus “my tools are the mechanisms which trigger human emotion”-humblebrag. Despite his striking charisma and sublime lyrical prowess, Alex Cameron himself is a forced witness as much as his own listeners. In this Q&A, all three individuals in this room are forced witnesses in many ways; forced to put up with someone else’s bowel movements. And eventually, forced to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. What started as a somewhat testy interview, gradually unfolded as a very constructive but challenging encounter. Thanks to a well-timed and genuine piece of shit no less.
DiS: To repeat the question: what’s your take on Forced Witness being released during the Weinstein-sparked reckoning of male dominance in the entertainment industry? Has all that rhetoric made you reassess some of the language you use?
Alex Cameron: First of all, it’s very important that there’s a shift in the culture of showbiz. Especially when it comes to male predators and men who try to physically dominate entire industries and working environments. This album was a piece of fiction that was written, and somehow it has gained relevance. The power is there in the songs to sing. I would feel a little remiss trying to draw parallels between our creative work and what’s happening in society. Because what happens in society needs to be taken care of in reality. And the stories we write are certainly pieces of fiction. But I mean, the songs are certainly hitting the spot they were intended to hit.
But sometimes that’s beyond your control. Political incorrectness can weed out lots of divergent opinions. I recently saw that documentary After Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, about Jim Carrey’s role as Andy Kaufman. Carrey said something along the lines of Kaufman becoming a lightning rod for outrage, to weed out people’s deep-seated perceptions. Is that what a record like Forced Witness can potentially do?
AC: I wouldn’t say that what we do is trying to provoke reactions. It’s commenting on what’s already there. I don’t exist in fantasy. Our work isn’t outrageous to the point of surreal. What I write about is the everyday occurrence. Your line of questioning regarding Weinstein and all the sexual harassment allegations in the entertainment industry, which is only the tip of the iceberg… it just stands to prove that what we write about is our reality. I’m not into it for pushing boundaries. These songs exist in the same place everyone else exists in. It’s accurate.
Songs like ‘Marlon Brando’ tap uncomfortably into our moral compass. Once you reduce something to a stereotype, it’s easy to find prejudice, to point and laugh, and this happens on a massive scale now. But in the vocal performance and the instrumentation, there’s no sardonic detachment, and the songs are grandiose and wholesome in their all-American make-up. It awakens some of these darker traits, which undermine one’s quest for virtuousness. Your narratives level that moral playing field between misguidedness and righteousness. But by tapping into those darker impulses, are you afraid the abyss, to put it dramatically, will stare back you?
Roy Molloy: Like Alex said, there’s nothing outrageous about these characters. They exist not beyond some boundaries or anything: they are stuck in reality. It’s not inviting scrutiny, it just holds up to it really well. There’s a distinct wrong in their behavior, in terms of right and wrong behavior. Calling someone a faggot is wrong. It’s bigoted and it’s horrible. But there are characters on our records whose traits reflect what people find within themselves.
But next to disgust, did that also breed empathy? Alex, you worked at an Ombudsman’s office. You didn’t just witness the actions of human beings, but also their intricacies, their motivations, their background. This isn’t all black-and-white, right and wrong…
AC: I suppose, to have one consistent philosophy that applies to all people, it’s just wishful thinking. I think the world is much more complex than that. I’m not trying to do anything, or provide hope for anyone. I just write these stories I see as real, accurate, and powerful. The reason I try to embody something or someone in my writing is simply to make it better and more accurate. And more fruitful as a writer… and when we get to perform the song. I know where my personal morals stand, that I’m a progressive person. I believe in inclusivity, we were both raised to embrace multiculturalism.
There’s a lot we learned in our upbringing the past five to ten years, that stirred a sense of injustice in the way that I see society. At the same time, I come from Sydney, which is one of the luckiest cities on earth. So I felt the only way to tackle that sense of injustice in me was to focus on writing about what I saw, as opposed to pretending like everything is okay. The crux of it is: it would be much more offensive and – I think – confrontational to write an album pretending that everything was okay.
Privilege is another hot-button issue here. You spoke about the “indie rock airbrush of revolt.” Now we see indie rock musicians being accused of likewise behavior as the characters in your songs, which shifts the conversation. If you become righteous and outspoken on pressing issues, the danger is that the conversation ends up in a vacuum, with everyone in that vacuum ending up agreeing with one another. How has your own privilege played a role in writing songs the way you do?
AC: I guess you’re thinking of it as a world we’re constructing. It’s like when you’re writing a piece of fiction… The internet unfolds before us each day, and we write a lot online. How can we put a logical stepping stone in front of us that would tie this all together? I’m much more concerned with how the music feels live than on the record. Concerned how the songs come across, how we can sing them and perform them. The record has become a business card now, and our actual business has become live performance. We spend much more time on the road than we do in the studio. So yeah, I feel as though the songs are carrying, for whatever reason, onward; we’re just following them.
People generally feel a musician singing about his or her feelings is more authentic than someone doing it through characters. Even though at their core, these songs are brazen confessionals too.
RM: When you make an honest observation about the world, it’s always going to hold up to scrutiny. No question about that. There is nothing to fear about that. There are other things that should probably be scrutinized before this record… (laughs)
AC: When someone finds a problem with a character – with my identity as a person who write songs in mind – I would hope they have the wherewithal to research it. To see the problem they have with a song and put up a dialogue. There’s no stopping them. I’ve always been confident in who I am, and I’ve always been confident in the accuracy of the songs. And also in the melodies, the beauty, and the sound. I’m not scared of being critiqued or scrutinized, But I see what you’re saying, but this is only the second record. It will exist online until the internet breaks. I hope I’ll make a different album next time. The dialogue should be open.
So if I were to say you’re taking the piss out of these characters, how would you reply?
RM: I don’t think they’d be accurate in saying that. I think that they themselves would be taking the piss out of these characters. They’d be the ones taking the piss, not Alex. It’s a presentation of something, not a mockery. If you find mockery in it, wonderful, you’re thinking about it clearly.
Still, I feel ambivalent about being in the "intellectual" clique of listeners who "get it". Another part of me kinda feels empathetic towards misguided bros believing they possess a "Beckham-like quality", instead of feeling pity like "I’m glad I’m not like that"...
RM: Well...don’t you sometimes wish you looked a bit like Beckham?
I would. But I would never think that aloud… well, up until now at least, haha. But you see what I mean? Isn’t "intellectualizing it" actually condescending in a way?
RM: If you find that condescending, you’re not critiquing Alex, you’re critiquing yourself.
Well, yeah… I am, actually. Laughing at the absurdity of these characters does say something about my own position of privilege. Which brings me back to the question I asked before: how does your own moral code fit into what you make?
AC: I do feel my DNA is on this record. It’s quite clear where my moral code as a writer stands. I’m not shining a very nice light on these characters, and that’s something intentional. Because I think it’s all about how you show something when you write a story. If you want to write a good story or a song, you gotta let the audience themselves discover how they feel about it. You don’t want to tell someone how they feel about it. Because they won’t listen to you.
It’s pretty dark how such a sonically fun album can make you reflect and doubt yourself like that.
RM: If a piece of art – let alone a song – can make a person think about themselves and about the world, that’s a pretty powerful thing. Some of us will spend their whole life doing that. It’s good that you’re thinking about yourself, where you stand.
There are still plenty of reactionary ‘punk’ records that are still great and effective in today’s world. But do you think a sanctimonious way of writing about injustice becomes passe, or does it depend on who does it?
AC: Well, to speak for myself, I could’ve approached this subject matter in two distinct options; write a really judgmental record and tell people how to behave. Or something powerful and honest and depicting characters as they are. So I could access people with these stories a little clearer. I don’t think preaching, especially from a position of privilege, as you just said earlier, is an effective way of getting people’s attention. Or to tell a story. People know what’s right and what’s wrong, there’s no question about that. How you give them the message, that’s how you’ll make them realize how they feel about it themselves.
Would you want your music to reach as many people as possible?
AC: It’s not realistic. Earning a living in music doesn’t mean that every person who hears it is supposed to like it. That’s why you hear a lot of shit on the radio, because it’s designed so that – at the very very least, at base level – everyone can tolerate it. But that’s not what we do. Obviously, Forced Witness, isn’t an album designed to be universally adored. My goal is to write good music, and whoever wants to come to the party is invited.
Forced Witness is out now via Secretly Canadian. For more information about Alex Cameron, including forthcoming tour dates, please click here.
Photo Credit: Chris Rhodes