ALEX CAMERON – Interview

Foto-© Chris Rhodes

Alex Camerons zweites Album Forced Witness ist seit kurzem draußen. Der Synth-Pop mit 80er-Touch lässt sich trotz dieser Beschreibung nicht leicht kategorisieren. Da ist Cameron, dann der Charakter, den er mitsamt aufgeklebter Narben und schmieriger Frisur porträtiert, und weiterhin die dunklen Figuren, die er in seinen Songs thematisiert. Er ist eine Kunstfigur, die das Scheitern untersucht. Und trotzdem ist an seiner Musik nichts künstlich und an seinem Kitsch nichts kitschig. Freund, “business partner” und Saxophonisten Roy Malloy ist, wie auch auf dem Debut Jumping the Shark, Teil des Projekts. Sein Saxophon ist mal opulent, mal glänzt es im Hintergrund. Zusammen schaffen die beiden eine Eindringlichkeit und Ehrlichkeit, die schwer greifbar ist. Lyrische Ichs einer Kunstfigur, die tiefenpsychologischen, aufrichtigen Synth-Pop macht – der dann obendrein noch nach Vergangenheit und Zukunft zugleich klingt? Wir haben Alex und Roy in Berlin zum Interview getroffen, um hinter das Mysterium zu schauen.

You have a history with Berlin, right? You lived here for a while?
Alex: Yeah, I spent some time here. I lived here for about six months and I’ve been coming here for years. For work and to record and whatnot. I’ve been here for a variety of different reasons.

Berlin has a reputation as a city of failure in a way. Many people come here and waste away a little bit.
Alex: They say that it can be a bit like purgatory.

Exactly. Do you feel like that? In what way does this suit the character you take in your music, that of a failed entertainer?
Alex: I think if you’re gonna fail here then you’re gonna fail anywhere. The city has all a city requires for you to be a successful artist. If your attitude is to do nothing and be unmotivated then it’s probably not got a lot to do with the city. The city’s beautiful. I created the songs of the record here. The risk here in Berlin to waste away can make creativity bigger in a way. You gotta be defiant and take the best away from that energy. But this delicate atmosphere of failure you can find in my music is definitely a big part of this place. It is a bit dangerous and I like that.

I actually wanted to ask you in what way Berlin had an influence on your music, you just touched on that…
Alex: I draw a lot from my personal life and most of it from a time before I came to Berlin. But Berlin offered me an environment that was very comfortable to write in and very inspirational.
Roy: I haven’t spent as much time as Alex here, but I visited and I like it very much. It’s a city of contrasts.

You said somewhere that Jumping The Shark (the debut album from 2013) is based on a sense of self-pity. Forced Witness has a similarly sensitive vibe to it, but the sounds are more grand, more monumental. Would you say your musical persona and the lyrics are gaining confidence? Or would that go against the irony that is inherent in your music?
Alex: I think I’m getting better as a songwriter and a singer. But the lyrical content has got more to do with false confidence and losing confidence as opposed to having none in the first place. The tragedies that I focus on on the new record and the stories are more to do with love and relationships and breakups. The dynamic between humans on a social level. It has less to do with failures within a metaphor of showbusiness and more to do with corruption and bankruptcy in the realm of love.
Roy: The lyrics are Alex’s but there’s an understanding there, definitely. We both write together a lot. Most of the songs are about other characters.
Alex: Yes, most of them are stories about other people with a thread that carries through them based on our experiences.

How do you filter, musically and lyrically, what goes into this project and what you create in your other band Seekae?
Alex: This is the project that i put most of my energy into. I’m not holding anything back with this project, it all goes in. It’s all considered and it’s all thoughtful and the words have been provoked out of me by my personal experience, but they’re not necessarily my perspective. It’s just what I’ve seen and what I’ve witnessed.

Your music often feels like creativity channeled through depression. Sensitivity seems to be strengthened through the negative and the dark and the sense that there is beauty in melancholy. Would you agree? How interwoven are melancholy and beauty for you?
Alex: I mean, I have dealt with this. Crazy that you say that. When I had my major bout of depression it was struggling, I was probably productive for about twenty minutes a day. But they were very explosive twenty minutes. And then I’d just be so drained that I’d lay down and be dizzy. I think in retrospect I look back and I feel this record is a little bit of a document of what it’s like to be mentally ill and to have relationships around you decline based on that. So I think I’m striving to cast a beautiful light onto the darkness, but it often takes experiencing mental illness to really have a perspective on it. And there’s still a broad range of that to be explored. I’m constantly striving to overcome the challenges that can be brought upon someone because of mental health. I’m not a melancholy person, I’m quite a happy person. If anything I’m quite frustrated, but I think there are ways to have minor achievements while you’re suffering from depression. I found that, along with medication and therapy and leaning on my dear friends around me, progress in my work helped me overcome that. But there was beauty there, there were moments of beauty. For sure.

Would you say that the way you pick up what you just said in your music is characteristically Australian? Being very dark and very direkt in a way, but then wearing this mask, putting on this persona, being a bit of an enigma. Australians are very ironic and you can have a full on conversation about something very deep or devastating, you both feel that it’s deep, but essentially they only tell you if you get their irony.
Alex: There is that element of Australian guardedness and defensiveness. I use characters and stories to help figure out situations for myself. A lot of these songs, if I’m gonna talk about what I personally get out of them, it’s because I always manage to feel sure-footed about a subject once I’ve written a song about it. At least about how I feel about it. If that is love or relationships or mental illness or bigotry, homophobia, things like that, I tend to get a better perspective on how I would go about making changes in society if I write something about it. That’s how I get a grip of what my stance is, by creating characters. Sometimes characters are villains, sometimes they’re heroes, sometimes they’re beautiful and other times they’re decrepit. I try not to judge the characters but if I met one of my characters in real life I would certainly cast judgement upon them. And a lot of the times I’ve learnt lessons about society just by writing about issues, creating fictionalised versions of them and then being able to observe them, live and breathe them. And you’re right, my act may seem over the top, but to those who get it it makes it all the more deep and meaningful. The mask creates distance but also closeness. Exactly that.

You don’t tell people how to live their lives with morally charged music, but rather let everyone take away so much from the little story.
Alex: That’s exactly right. I didn’t want to preach to the choir. I felt that music that was striving for change in society became very preachy. And that’s ineffective. No-one listens to the preacher anymore. You have to be artful in your storytelling if you want to actually change the chemicals in someone’s mind or change their perspective. People are too intelligent to just listen to you barking orders at them ‘cause you did a protest song. It’s not good enough. People write whole records about climate change and inequality, but unless you do it artfully it’s not gonna make any change. You’re just gonna make yourself feel good by saying you did a record about climate change, but I would rather infiltrate the mind. And use stories.
Roy: I liked what you said about it sounding Australian, or having an Australian sentiment to it. Cause I think it has that, and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly how. It is a unique culture in terms of masculinity especially. It’s a very strange way to grow up as a man. I’m sure as a woman as well, but I haven’t experienced that. The masculine culture in Australia is a very unusual and sometimes troubling one. And I’m glad that some of that made its way into our music. It’s nice to hear that it was perceived.

Your music has the potential for cheesiness, but you manage to not be cheesy at all. Taking on this character, you even have scars on your face in pictures, could make you a fraud, the act could make you a fraud. But the opposite is the case: It is so much more honest because of it and incredibly touching. That’s a very tough thing to manage to do. I feel like that has a lot to do with you being Australian and the sensitivity with which you perceive masculinity that you described, Roy.
Alex: We put ourselves on the line emotionally, so there is an earnestness, but at the same time the lyrics and our stories give us license to do whatever we want musically. Once you know what your song’s about the plan becomes clear. And it doesn’t matter whether there’s a gigantic guitar solo. Because you’re saying something honest. And that’s  how you access the spirit in music properly.

You’ve known each other for a really long time, you were neighbours as kids. How did you end up doing this together and what have you experienced together before?
Roy: Yeah, we met each other when we were five or six and lived on the same street. We went to different Primary Schools but went to the same High School.
Alex: We ended up working in a pizza store together!

That must be a real bonding experience.
Roy: Being able to work with a friend is nice.

You always say you are “business partners”. So that started in the pizza store hey?
Roy: That’s actually where Alex showed me the demos to Jumping The Shark. Around that time at least. He gave me a USB.
Alex: The pizza was super greasy, awful!

It wouldn’t match the music if it was this fancy Italian place.
Alex: No, it was run by two nervous wrecks, awful at making pizzas. And Jimmy, the guy who made pizzas, was a terrible pizza chef.

Are you sure it wasn’t just a money laundering business? And are you sure you’re not making this up?
Alex: Making this up? No way! I don’t think they were earning mafia money, but I don’t think they earned the mafia money.
Roy: They were total cowards.
Alex: Yes, they were real cowards.
Roy: We needed cash man.
Alex: We’d had written a plan to extort money from them, but that soon became fiction. I’d say you could make a show out of this pizza store but there is a show in Australia called ‘Fat Pizza’ which is about a small pizza shop, so..
Roy: Late to the game. Life imitating art.

Enough about the pizza store! You seem to always be busy and on the road. Not many breaks.
Roy: We’re about to have three days off actually. It’s very exciting, a little holiday. We’re immediately going different directions from one another.
Alex: Tomorrow morning first thing I’m flying to Wales. And I’m going to the beach.
Roy: The furthest place I could afford in the other direction was Portugal, so I’m going there.

Being this busy with something creative, how would you define success?
Roy: You’ve kind of described it before. Being on the road, being able to stay working.
Alex: Having a sold out show is all well and good. It’s all about what happens the night after a sold out show. So I think success is defined by where you’re going next. Where your work is and what your city is. What your plan is. Success for me is clarity.

What is your plan?
Alex: I would like to improve and become more specific and more honed in my songwriting skills. That is part of my agenda. But we have also involved a lot of our friends in this, they work with us, some of our friends tour with us now in a band. And I always said the plan isn’t to make us money, the plan is to make the people around us money. And if I plan to make my friend money, then, in doing so, I should be able to make a living myself.

So you’re creating your own network, your own music business.
Alex: Yeah, you create your own community of people. And that way it’s not so emotionally draining to be always thinking about yourself and to be always thinking about your wellbeing.

You tend to tour with people close to you. Tell me about your relationship with Mac Demarco for example.
Alex: I met Mac Demarco in Berlin actually. We both played a concert in different parts of the city and we randomly met on the street, went for a beer and hung out. And then we ran into each other in Australia about a year later. We became closer still, and then he actually put us in touch with a lot of his agents around the world and gave them our record.

So he has the same idea about sharing success it seems.
Alex: Oh, absolutely. He’s a very sharing guy. He’s very generous with his success. And Angel Olsen as well has been a big supporter of us. Has just given us a lot of love and tenderness, and she’s an immense talent. We’ve been the benefactors of receiving a lot of benevolence.

You’re being asked about your relationship with the music business and the industry a lot. It is thematised in your songs. In a short film you made a few years ago about SXSW you experience it as “a fucking nobody” and show how many small acts play empty shows. How do you think things will change in the future now that music isn’t necessarily linked to corporate ideas anymore? How can artists who don’t have much get places?
Alex: I hope that artists feel less bound to a certain standard of song. I hope that they gather that they have the freedom to say things and to operate within their own sphere as songwriters. Because we’re not bound to big money anymore as artists. We’re not paid a lot, so we don’t have any corporate responsibilities. Our responsibility is to the artform and to the audience. I hope that things will change and artists can speak freely, express themselves accurately without a message that is tolerable from a conservative standpoint. It’s quite punk I suppose. But we can say now what we need to say to make the changes that we wanna make. Even if we play empty shows. We claim our right to make music freely.

Your music is very unique and specific, it’s not easily compared. Yes, there’s an 80s vibe, but I don’t think there’s a template for your music. Why do you think that is?
Alex: Interesting that you say that. Because what we’ve realised is that older people tend to think it sounds like music from their youth, and younger people seem to think it sounds like music from the future.

It’s really funny that you say this, because I had a thought in regards to your music. You know these visions of the future from the 80s or the 70s, these films on what the world will look like now basically, or twenty years ago even. It’s so much more futuristic than what the world is actually like now. But the pictures are retro from today’s perspective.
Alex: That’s it. It’s quite a magical image. I think it matches what we do!