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Ahead of his headline show in Workman's, Dublin on December 1, Alex Cameron opens up about his latest record and the toxic masculinity it's attempting to destroy.
“For me it’s frustrating to find a stubborn human who refuses to adjust themselves with the flow of society, with the flow of progress.”
Few acts mix synth and sleaze as entertainingly as Alex Cameron does. Over some glistening pop production, sultry saxophone lines and throwback hooks, the Australian croons cynically about the state of manhood in 2017. While the sounds are nostalgic, the subject matter is unnervingly contemporary.
On his excellent new record ‘Forced Witness’, Cameron plays absurd alpha-male characters; men deluded by their own egos who feel unjustly aggrieved that other sex is starting to level the playing field. They feel emasculated by other, equally ignorant men and spurned by lovers who deserve better. Along with his partner-in-crime/secret weapon/saxophonist Roy Molloy, Alex Cameron may have predicted the much needed crisis masculinity we are now seeing played out in the news media.
Mark Conroy caught up with Alex over the phone ahead of his gig in Dublin on December 1 in The Workman’s.
In your music, you take on characters that are absurd alpha-males and purveyors of toxic masculinity. With all that’s going on in the news at the moment, do you think men like that are facing a deserved reckoning?
Yeah I do. I feel like the winds have changed. I certainly wrote ‘Forced Witness’ with the behaviour of men in mind. Many of the songs are my way of dismantling that kind of persona and that kind of real life human. The way the world operates at the moment, it’s high time women held men accountable for their behaviour. I’m just sitting back and observing and ready to take direction from the people, the women especially, who are coming out and describing the way the world has been through their eyes, you know? I’m open to new perspectives but that record is about what I was seeing in the world.
It’s clear you condemn the kind of men you play in your music, but is there element of sympathy and pity present for them too?
For me it’s frustrating to find a stubborn human who refuses to adjust themselves with the flow of society, with the flow of progress. I don’t know if I would describe it as pity. It’s a morbid fascination and it’s my attempt to try and contain that kind of behaviour within the realms of the confines of storytelling on a musical record. Yeah, it’s something that I have definitely been observing for whatever reason.
Your native country Australia just voted in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Do you think the men of ‘Forced Witness’ would have voted yes, were they given the chance?
Strangely I think the men would yeah. I think they’d vote yes. I think the yes vote is something that’s been in the hearts of the youth of this country for years and it was high time for that to get put through. I would have preferred to see the government do it themselves, because that’s their job and that’s what people wanted, but they probably felt they needed to do the more conservative, bigoted thing, which was to start a discussion or debate that didn’t need to be had for the sake of polls, registered voters and bigoted voters.
I think the characters in ‘Forced Witness’ are confused and they’re shallow but there a little bit… I suppose I can’t find the word for them… They are certainly overly sensitive for characters who want to come across as tough and having thick skin but the sense of confusion and hormones and testosterone are at play there.
I do think they would have voted yes even though in the some of the songs they are using quite abrasive terminology and offensive words. I don’t know if they even understand what they’re saying at points, I think that’s part of it, I think I’m trying to come to terms with it the way the men are behaving and the way that men are being revealed to have been behaving for a long time.
Your first album was all about characters embracing commercial failure, is ‘Forced Witness’ then about embracing relationship failure?
Yeah I think it is about failed relationships and I think it’s about the destructive nature of the male perspective in love. A man’s perspective in failed love can be a brutal and frustrated one. I think the more a man just tries to squeeze someone or force them into a position of feeling the same, the more they destroy their chances. I think that’s not the way that people want to be treated when they are in a relationship.
I found it’s much more liberating to treat your loved ones with respect and provide them with space and freedom and let them come to you when you need something. You don’t want to be forced into a feeling a certain way just to make someone else feel better.
Photography by Cara Robbins
There is a contrast between the upbeat nature of how your music sounds, and the embittered self-loathing scorn in the lyrics. Is that deliberate?
I think I’m drawn towards melodies that feel powerful and I’m drawn towards lyrics that contrast that so it feels like I can have access to these really beautiful songs that I find touching but still get to express myself in a way that I feel is accurate. I feel like I can stay true to myself as a writer. I’m not dumbing down lyrics to make a pop song, I’m not making our music brutal for the sake of a message. I just like expressing myself honestly.
In the past you’ve describe the relationship between you and saxophonist Roy Molloy as a ‘business partnership’. Could you elaborate on that?
Yeah it’s a partnership. It’s a project we’ve working on for the better part of four/five years. Every show I’ve done, we’ve done together, more or less. It’s a matter about having someone who is committed as you are to the cause and it just means you get to spread the workload a bit better. Touring isn’t easy, you know? We’re just trying to be emotionally supportive when it calls for it.
Speaking of Roy, ‘Forced Witness’ is also probably the best ‘indie’ album that features the saxophone prominently.
I just like having the sax on the record because of Roy’s tone. I just like it. I don’t think I I’d ever get another saxophonist to play on the record. I’m more attached to Roy and the instrument he plays. That being said, when it’s live, that sax can really blast. It creates a red hot vibe when that sax comes down, it really evokes that guttural human feeling.
The incomparable Angel Olsen features on ‘Stranger’s Kiss’. Besides yours, she’s the only other voice on the album. How important was it to get a woman’s perspective on that song especially?
For me that was a little window into or a reveal of who these characters are coming up against. They’re coming up against strong women ultimately. Angel was perfect for that because she displays this very sort of sensitive side which is like the voice of reason in the man’s life and they are pushing each other away because they can’t find a middle ground.
In the studio Angel really opened that song up and it wouldn’t be right if she wasn’t her on that track or on the record. It was a powerful thing to happen. I guess I’ll just put it down to one of those lucky moments for us. She’s been a powerful musical influence.
Russell Crowe recently gave you a shout out on Twitter, what’s it like having such a major star take notice of your work
That was one of the more surreal experiences. I woke up to it, I checked my phone and just thought, ‘what on Earth is going on here?’.
It was bizarre but I know he is a music fan and I know that he is supportive of artists, as far as I’ve heard, so it was one of those ones where you just have to think it’s a wild world out there. You don’t know what to expect when you’re online.
Would you invite him up on stage if he came to one of your gigs?
I might give him a little electro acoustic guitar to strum along to on stage.
You’ve been touring with Killers, opening for them across Europe and elsewhere. What is like to perform your material to thousands of people in arenas, is it something you relish?
We definitely embraced it. Those songs were written in my home in a small apartment. I had a little space to write music there but part of me was always dreaming that they would be, in some form, experienced on a grander scale. So to be singing a song off ‘Jumping The Shark’ like ‘The Comeback’ in an arena is something that kind of makes you feel hysterical inside. It really is a beautiful thing just to get the opportunity to sing these in a huge room that was empty, but these rooms were full. It’s funny I wrote a lot of that first record in 2012. So to be on that kind of stage five years later with Roy and the band behind me… It just makes you smile.