Australian musician Alex Cameron and his ‘business partner’ and saxophonist Roy Molloy recently made a Glasgow tour stop at Mono, where The Student caught up with the pair for a chat about depraved characters, fractured masculinity, and why they won’t be going off the grid any time soon.
How does playing your own headline tour compare to supporting The Killers or Mac DeMarco?
AC: I suppose it’s just that the songs hit home a little more. Crowds are smaller but the vibes are better.
Do you find that the humour and satire of your music is a bit lost on support crowds, that it doesn’t really get across?
AC: There are different layers to what we do. I have faith in the songs melodically – you know, if people don’t really care that much about lyrics, they can still enjoy the music. It’s not just strictly lyrical, but that is what I focus on. I don’t know the science behind it, but I certainly would have a problem if I had a catchy song and the lyrics were meaningless. That would be a pointless, redundant endeavour – to get a song stuck in someone’s head that means nothing. Purpose is the wrong word, it feels manufactured or something, but I want my music to have a message. It’s not music with a function, it’s not to be sold, necessarily, but it’s to be listened to.
Your persona and the characters in your songs are pretty lewd and seedy – is that a sort of character study, or something you made up yourself…where did it come from?
AC: I guess it’s just a filter, through which to tell those kinds of stories, you know? The characters are kind of conjugates for what I see in everyday life. I don’t feel like they’re surreal or made up or complete fantasy – they’re very much real-world stories. I come into contact with people like them more often than not. Maybe not at a show, maybe they’re not in songs you hear on the radio, but they are out there, for sure.
I feel like there’s a kind of honesty to the characters in a way, they’re bad enough but there’s something there that’s preventing them from being out-and-out deplorable – do you feel some sympathy for them?
AC: It’s more of a fascination, a bit morbid I suppose, but the idea isn’t to celebrate them, the idea isn’t for me to feel celebrated or be a champion of something. I’m just trying to write good, truthful songs, just like someone would try to make a good film or write a good book – it’s just telling stories that ultimately, you hope, have some kind of folklore to them. I mean if you want to get into the real spiritual side of things, it’s just about threading information forward, that’s what a good writer does, I think. Send information forward into the future about what it’s like to be around at this time. I don’t feel like there should be a type of subject that is ok to be covered in music, and one that isn’t. I think it’s all on the table.
Is there a critique of masculinity in there too?
AC: I think a lot of the characters are displaying a fractured and frail masculinity, potentially even the kind of masculinity that you hope gets left in the past, but keeps popping up.
The new album, Forced Witness, seems like a much more widescreen affair than your last one, but it still has the little eccentricities and weirdness – how did the whole thing come about?
AC: It took me a while to write the record, about the best part of two years because me and Roy were touring at the same time. In 2015 and 2016 a lot of writing took place, and recording in 2016. Words come to me over time. Sometimes you sit down and force yourselves to think of words, but it’s a pretty inconsistent procedure.
Why the name Forced Witness?
Roy Molloy: Alex had these two words, ‘forced witness’, and they kept popping up in all these odd different ways and finding new relevance. I believe originally it was a type of pornography, but then it came to be emblematic of, you know, you go to check the time on your phone and then you find out a fucking volcano has gone off in Nicaragua or something like that, you know what I mean? I don’t know if you looked at your phone today but there’s a bit of a nightmare unfolding in the United States in Congress, so you’re being forced to witness these almost nightmarish visions.
You worked with Angel Olsen and Brandon Flowers on the album. Do you actively seek out collaboration or does it just happen organically?
AC: Yeah I do make a conscious decision to do it. Brandon got in contact with us about coming to Las Vegas, we just went there and spent a month with him, writing in the studio every day, a very friendly thing really. We worked with him on The Killers’ record, writing lyrics mainly. I find that when I write a song and then someone else plays it back to me in their style, it makes me appreciate the song more, as if I didn’t even write it. Because once someone else plays it, you question whether or not you even wrote it.
Do you think you’ll continue in this direction of upscaling in the future? Or do you want to just get down and do a folk album, do a Bon Iver and head off to a cabin in the woods?
AC: Nah I can’t be by myself. I’d like to do a folk album. I’d like to do a rock album.
The internet seems to come into your songs a lot – there are Nigerian email phishers, porn, chatroom romances… how do you relate to it?
RM: It’s the same as the Big Bopper writing about the telephone. If you’re not writing about the Internet right now, you’re missing a huge part of our existence.
Do you think your worldview would change a lot if you went off the grid?
AC: Maybe. I have no interest in being off the grid, because I like to experience what the world is like. I’m not interested in isolating myself and claiming to feel enlightened because I’m not involved. When someone deletes their Facebook page, it’s like you’re voluntarily missing out on a big chunk of what happens in society. I’d prefer to be involved.
RM: If that’s your idea of a pure existence, then good for you.
Do you like the current pop landscape, or do you think that something needs to happen there?
AC: I don’t know, I don’t even relate as a pop artist. So many people use the word pop these days, but they’re not popular, and they’re not making music that’s popular. There are people who claim to be pop writers, but they’ve got no hits under their belt.
How did your life as a musician begin?
AC: Me and Roy started a band in high school – I used to play drums and Roy played bass and we practised underneath my parents’ house. I tried university and was bad so I had to stop. Then we just got full-time jobs, worked in Sydney for years. I worked as a clerk in law offices, no degree or anything. I’ve been writing music the whole time – sometimes it was conducive to the writing to have a nine-to-five job, sometimes it was awful. Either way it was stressful.
RM: If it all goes to shit and we’re forced to retire early from music for whatever reason we can go back to our day jobs and music can be a pleasurable on-your-own-time kinda thing. The further I progress into the music wormhole the less I relate to that, but I guess I could go back…
How important is the visual side of your work?
AC: It’s important in that it’s a chance to usher people towards the songs, visually. I 100 per cent think that people still discover music through videos. So many people spend their time on YouTube, just clicking on thumbnails, so I do think that it’s highly likely that someone will have discovered our music from video. Roy actually directed the latest one, ‘Politics of Love’.
What non-musical things have inspired you?
AC: Lots of photography inspires me. I like Josef Koudelka, Sarah Moon, a friend of mine Mclean Stephenson, he’s from Sydney. At the moment I’m liking lots of Polaroid photography.
Are there any news stories that particularly affected you guys this year?
AC: The Australian government’s treatment of refugees has been really poor. The thing that keeps recurring to me as a thought is the whole Manus Island thing that the government has set up for what they call illegal refugees, who are essentially people just fleeing war-torn parts of the world. That really gets me going every time, I’m always flabbergasted. In terms of population movement in the next 100 years, Australia has no bloody idea what’s coming, and the country has to adjust its policy and allow more people in because it’s such a huge landmass, and they act like they fucking own it. There are so many people in the world, and Australia has one of the smallest populations.
RM: People have a bit of a warm and fuzzy idea of Australia, but Manus Island was a really obvious example of the fact that they’re willing to hurt innocent people just to achieve their political goals or feed their own ego and ambition.
Finally, how would you describe/pitch your music?
AC: It’s just an attempt at the investigation into the condition of the straight white male, through the filter of, I don’t know, contemporary music.
Image: Cara Robbins