Though he's retired the wrinkled latex skin he used to wear onstage and abandoned the failed lounge-singer persona from his 2016 debut, Jumping the Shark, Alex Cameron hasn't lost his mysterious sleaze. Joined as always by his trusty business partner/alto saxophonist Roy Molloy, the Australian crooner dropped his sophomore album Forced Witness last year with the help of an all-star cast of backing musicians, including Angel Olsen and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers (who Cameron says is "like a mentor").
Across 10 tracks that play like greasy little vignettes seen through motel room peepholes, Cameron sings from the perspectives of different men in crisis. Inspired by writers like George Saunders and Flannery O'Connor, his characters are typically drunk, drugged, or otherwise unreliable, whether they're on the lam, prowling online, or harassing women at the club. Throughout Forced Witness, Cameron's soaring, bongo-accented synth-pop is fueled by the adrenaline of someone with nothing left to lose, and his lyrics illustrate just how dangerous hopelessness can be when it's steeped in toxic masculinity.
The Mercury spoke to Cameron about getting pelted with a hot dog at Pickathon 2017, Forced Witness, and the straight white male perspective.
MERCURY: Something weird happened at Pickathon last year. During your Galaxy Barn set, this guy pushed toward the stage, threw a naked, bun-less hot dog at you, and then bailed. Was that planned?
ALEX CAMERON: Oh yeah, I remember that! No, it wasn't planned at all. I think there's something about what we do that kind of inspires the oddball in people. That same show someone was trying to put sparkles on me, she said I needed to have—what do they call them, those little things that shimmer in the light? Sometimes they're in lip balm.
Yeah, glitter! So I don't know, there were hotdogs and glitter—I mean, I guess that's a pretty decent combo. I think I asked that guy if he could please take the hotdog off and he'd already walked away. One of his friends came up after and said the guy was just really excited by the show and wanted to take part somehow, so he put a raw, uncooked hotdog on the stage.
Is audience participation common at your shows?
It's often men who feel the need to yell out. It's a bizarre thing, it's consistently men—it's consistently white guys, actually—and everyone else is just having a nice time.... Anyone can buy a ticket; you can't pick your audience and you can't pick your allies, but you can try and educate them and you can try and encourage them to be respectful people.
It's ironic, since much of Forced Witness satirizes the straight white man's perspective. That's why I assumed the hot dog incident was staged—it felt too on the nose.
If anything, when things like that happen, for a moment I get to appreciate that I'm onto something with my work. I didn't make this stuff up—it's fictional, and I write from the perspective of fictional characters, but the stories I'm telling are very much based in reality.
You used to work as an investigator’s assistant in a public law office, where you’d “receive information about hideous, unthinkable acts allegedly committed by those who should’ve known better.” What inspired you to make the jump from cataloging evidence against these people to crawling inside their heads and singing from their perspectives?
I think it was an attempt at finding closure for myself. My job was essentially to go through all the information that was given to us—I can’t go into too much detail, but essentially, I would have a dossier that I would have to compile to make it admissible to court. There was such a huge sense of tragedy when I worked there, because it rarely works out good for anyone... I guess I want to investigate behavioral traits of characters that would lead them into, ultimately, microscopic personal tragedies.
The song "Marlon Brando" is written from the perspective of this hyper-masculine misogynist who's all juiced up at the bar, and he calls another man a homophobic slur. Did you grapple with whether or not you should sing that word, since it's still coming from you—a straight white man—even as you embody this character?
That's a good question, and a discussion that is very important to me. I wrote that song based on events that were happening in my hometown, in Sydney, Australia. There was a culture when I was growing up of heavy drinking and violence, and I think misguided usage of certain language, especially in the people around me in my teenage years. What I thought was Australian turned out, in my travels, to actually be very British, and very American, and very Irish, and just very male—it was a male trend.
We had a thing called king-hits in Sydney, which is when someone would run up behind another person and punch them in the back of the head—I think you guys call it a sucker punch, it's a cheap shot—and people would die because of it. But I felt as though there was something going on with the culture of teenage boys, and of men, that there was a masculinity issue, not an alcohol issue.
Grappling with the use of hateful language is something that, as a writer, you have to make sure you're doing it in an effective way, and you have to make sure that it's clearly highlighting the flaw in the character. As long as I'm keeping up to date with my responsibilities as a writer, my perspective is that, through writing and through effective works of fiction, everything is on the table.
As a straight white guy with a problem with the way that straight white men behave, instead of just harping on about it on Twitter or instead of just like, claiming to be on the side of progression and equality, I thought the only way to actually put myself on the line here is to write about it and to include it in my music.
What inspired you to use bongos—an unexpected instrument choice—on songs like "Country Figs" and "Marlon Brando"?
If I'm writing from a character's perspective, I want the instrumental to be as though they made it as well. That's a bizarre thing to say, but I really do try to embody the character in all elements. I think that a hyper-masculine character would make almost absurd, peacock-style decisions in the studio. It'd be like, throw everything at the wall, don't hold back, put bongos on it, put triangle, put Rototoms and clave. Everything has to be there, because everything's on the line for these characters when they're going through a tragedy, which is their own personal flaws.
On "Marlon Brando" I put bongos because—and I'm not necessarily a Marlon Brando fan, by a long shot—but one of my favorite photographs is of Marlon Brando wearing a suit and he's playing the bongos [Eds note: He's actually playing the congas in said photo.] It all just sort of fit in for me, I'd finished recording that song about aggressive male behavior, and idolizing certain male traits from classic times that were actually proven later to be oppressive or detrimental to our society.
What feeling do you hope your music leaves people with?
I think my main goal was to create a Trojan horse-type collection of songs, that could entice people with the powerful and uplifting melodies, but then leave them with a sense of contemplation.... If I'm successful and the music has infiltrated them, I want them to be able to consider [the songs] as what I hope to be effective portraits of what it means to be a man in this day and age. And then hopefully from there, I want everyone to start formulating the new idea of what the new man can be.