The Many Masks of Alex Cameron

On "Forced Witness" Alex Cameron confronts toxic masculinity through an array of characters. We talk about it.

Written by Colin Kirkland

Since his debut album, “Jumping The Shark,” Australian artist, Alex Cameron has been a man beneath a mask. Unlike other musicians who specialize in face coverage – Deadmau5 or Daft Punk – Cameron takes on the identity of those he studies, those that fascinate him. The cover of his first record depicts him as a washed-up lounge singer with greased-back hair, stick-on wrinkles, oversized shades, hearing aids, and a leisure suit; and this is the perspective in which he writes the songs.

On “Forced Witness,” Cameron’s new sophomore release, he expands his interest in the underbelly of society, expounding on grueling portrayals of toxic masculinity. Set against springy, danceable beats, smooth horns, and insatiably catchy melodies, we hear stories from an array of characters: a bigoted high school football star; a homeless man waking from a wet dream; sex-craved men screwing women in seedy hotel rooms; tech-savvy perverts sitting wide-eyed at computer screens waiting for online lovers. Before setting out on a European tour, Cameron tells me about trying to encompass the motivations behind these monsters’ actions and what went into this new record.

(Cameron and his business partner/bandmate, Roy Malloy)

I mention my day job. “I worked at a pizza joint, too,” responds Cameron. “I worked at a pizza joint for a while. That’s where I first played Roy my demo, at a pizza joint where we were both working at.” A beautiful image builds in my mind: Cameron and his business partner/bandmate, Roy Malloy, trading tunes and spinning dough.

While we talk over the phone, I am sitting on my back porch – holes in the floor and rusty nails protruding from half-painted planks. Cameron is in New York City staying with friends, gearing up to fly to Paris for the start of a European tour. There is a baby crawling around the room, occasionally letting out a cry here and there.

I ask him how he got in contact with Jonathan Rado, founding member of Foxygen and co-producer on Cameron’s new album.
“We played together in Paris three years ago,” Cameron tells me. “We met and he said he liked the show and that he wanted to talk more.” Rado became Cameron’s first legitimate professional contact. “That was my first interaction with that kind of person,” he says. “And he was really sweet; he left a note in my backpack and it said, ‘Come on tour with us in America’ and that’s what we did about six months later.”

“How did everything go working together on ‘Forced Witness’?” I ask.
“It went really well,” responds Cameron. “He’s such an incredible musician and very intuitive. He got what I was going for on the new record. He was breathing life into the album as it was all happening around me. He’s the type of person who humanizes songs and makes them seem timeless.” Cameron tells me that he was aiming to create a robotic-sounding record, but Rado insisted on bringing a more human element to the project: “He played a lot of it before the synthetics – the drums are live, a mixture between me, a drummer, Henry Lindstrom, and a percussionist called Mark Pike. We made a bed of sounds that was electric but very warm and organic sounding.” Cameron believes that listeners will get a mixed impression, where a sonic past and future exist simultaneously.

(Cameron in his Jumping The Shark getup)

Since Cameron’s first project, which was independently released for free on his website in 2013, he has become friends with some pretty high-caliber musicians, Jonathan Rado included. Amongst other contributors to “Forced Witness” are Brandon Flowers, Angel Olsen, and Kirin J. Callinan. It’s quite miraculous how casually these relationships have formed.

“Brandon sort of emailed me out of the blue and was like ‘If you’re ever in Las Vegas, you should come and hang out,” says Cameron. “We didn’t have plans on going to Las Vegas but he heard ‘Jumping The Shark’ and was a fan.” Cameron says that Flowers has been nothing but generous to him and his bandmates, taking them on tour, inviting Cameron to write on the new Killers record, and contributing to two tracks on “Forced Witness.” This includes Cameron’s newest single, “Runnin’ Outta Luck,” an uplifting love song that embodies a dangerous romance between two sketchy souls existing on the fringes. “That’s something that continues to be surreal,” says Cameron. “I know I believe in what I do but to have someone else come through and believe in that is kind of odd – a little unnerving – but very real and honest.”

“And Angel has been on board with what I do as a songwriter since before anyone had heard the record,” says Cameron. Olsen wrote to Cameron when ‘Jump The Shark’ dropped and asked for a copy. Cameron tells me that she has had an even bigger impact on him outside of the studio. “She’s put us in touch with the right people,” he says. “She’s vouched for us; she’s taken us on the road. She’s got one of my favorite voices on the planet.” Olsen sings on the sultry album-opener, “Candy May,” and shares a duet with Cameron by the name of “Stranger’s Kiss,” a track that Cameron tells me had to have Olsen on it – “She gave it this transcendent feeling of a heartbreaking pop duet.” Both songs are full of loneliness and visceral imagery –

“So when you see me and Candy May and we’re walking down the street at a mean pace / And she’s crying out, ‘You F-ing lonely man, you worthless piece of shit, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I got shat on by an eagle, baby. Now I’m / King of the neighborhood and it feels like I could / Just peel the gym pants off a single mother but this / Run of good luck don’t got me feeling all too good.”

“So what about Kirin J. Callinan?” I ask. Before our conversation I had never heard of him and therefore decided to watch some of his music videos, one in which he and Cameron – both Aussie artists – are cowboys rambling through wild terrain. This is probably Callinan’s most tame video. “Kirin is a dear friend of mine,” says Cameron. “Since 2014 we’ve been sharing ideas and collaborating. We share a songwriting connection, sort of like creating these worlds with the records we make.” Cameron tells me that Callinan came over to Los Angeles to contribute to “Forced Witness.” When Callinan arrived at the studio, he got completely naked and ripped guitar solos on several different songs. According to Cameron, he has a very iconic guitar sound, one that is reckless and empowering.

There are many instances on “Forced Witness” that involve internet use, usually in a questionable, seedy way. Whether it’s the man in “True Lies,” who doesn’t care if the sexy woman he’s chatting online with is “some Nigerian guy,” or Studmuffin96 in “Studmuffin96” who is waiting for a 17-year-old to be his lover. Cameron somehow makes it difficult to refer to these characters as simply “pervs” or “creeps” due to the overarching story surrounding their experience; he humanizes the outcasts that most of us grow up fearing. Therefore, when listening to the album, you find yourself connecting with voices that you still don’t agree with; this is a strangely powerful thing. The internet and masculinity seem to be conjoined curiosities for Cameron.

“I’m certainly interested in what the internet does to men,” he tells me. “I’m interested in how men are impacted in the realm of romance on the internet and what that does to us as animals. The darker side of that struck me as being important at the time I was writing the record.” Cameron refers to some of these men as bullies. He says, “I’m just like studying the straight white male.”

“Why do you think you gravitate to singing through the perspective of different characters that you witness?” I ask.
“I think it’s more important for me to become the character than trying to distance myself from it,” he tells me. “I think I’m putting myself on the front line in a way. It would be easy for me to condemn these things via social media but I would rather create art about it.”
This is Cameron’s way of approaching objectivity, allowing listeners to get a sense of why people do things.

I ask Cameron if he has a favorite character or story on the album.
He confidently tells me that it is “Country Figs,” an all-around catchy tune with layers of bouncing synths, overlapping drum beats, and a lively sax part. This tune embodies that combination of robot and human qualities that Cameron mentions earlier. “Country Figs” might also contain his most invasive and memorable line on the album – “The worst part about being homeless/ Is waking up from a dirty wet dream/ With a lap full of cum and a head full of steam.”

“It’s because my car broke down on the highway,” he says, elaborating on the inspiration for the song. “Me and Roy, and our girlfriends at the time, we had to wait all morning by the side of the highway for a tow truck driver. We got towed like 200 miles and we had this tow truck driver and he was telling us about his job and his work and how his marriage is going down the toilet and how he was feeling very tense and the night before he had to go to an accident where there were people who died and it was this really vulnerable masculine moment that this trucker was having.”

(Cameron on set of new video, Runnin’ Outta Luck

Cameron usually writes about what his characters refuse to say; in a way his lyrics are unknown confessions. “I’m wrestling with what they think,” he says. “I’m forcing them to say what I think they mean. I’m trying to reveal something about them, that someone like them would never admit to.” When taking on these roles, Cameron believes that these sketchy individuals want society to be different because their actions are based in fear, guilt, or a personal shame. I ask him what he’s learned through shining a light on badness.

“I’m still learning,” he says. “I focus on things that are in the gutter that I wish were in the past, things that are still apparent today that I keep coming across. I guess what I have learned is that people aren’t afraid of art that challenges badness. People want to hear this stuff out in the open so we can assess and judge it. If you don’t shine a light on it, it grows in strength underground. I personally don’t want underground movements to be regressive and bigoted. I want them to be progressive so they can influence the world from underneath. I think what we just witnessed in the last five years are grass-roots movements that tried to take us back in time, which are regressive. And I’ve learned that people want to hear these things tackled in art and in stories and I think more artists should be doing it, and the art community should be ready to make assessments of the world because that is, I suppose, the core function to be a writer and an artist.

“That’s your main responsibility?”

“That’s my main responsibility, yeah.”

Over the past year I’ve talked to several artists that admit to having a persona, often times they can’t survive in the industry without one. Cameron tells me that he thinks his persona is fluid, that it will continue to change from record to record. However, these masks that he wears and the characters he infiltrates – the way he currently challenges the space around him – may someday be behind him. “I do think I’m slowly carving away at an exterior,” he tells me as our conversation comes to an end. “I would like to reach something really brutally honest by the end of this.” I’m not entirely sure what “this” means – either his life or his music career, or both. For now, all we can discuss and try to understand are Cameron’s interests, who and what he chooses to study. But someday his shades will come off and we’ll experience an entirely different world. And I’m sure we’ll be able to dance to it.

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