It’s a Wednesday night in Brunswick West as a crowd pours into Melville Road’s Estonian House. The venue has been serving as one of the major venues for this year’s Brunswick Music Festival, and tonight, it’s hosting the final date of Alex Cameron’s appearances in Melbourne.
Though none of us know it yet, this is bound to be the last live show most of those in attendance will see for some time. Just two days later, we’ll be treated to the news of COVID-19-inspired restrictions, with the local live scene becoming something akin to a ghost town within the week.
Following a riveting set from SPIKE FCUK, the crowd eagerly begin the countdown to the appearance of Cameron. A divisive performer known for taking on a number of personas throughout his career, the evening’s performance is set to be equal parts an education and eye-opener for many in the room.
Right on cue, the lights of this gorgeous venue dim, a deafening roar springs up, and Cameron and his band take to the stage. Dressed in a sharp suit jacket atop a white singlet, the evening’s set begins with “Bad For the Boys” as fans sing along.
While the song itself is catchy, the music isn’t the only thing keeping gazes fixed upon the man whose name adorns the (figurative) marquee. His piercing gaze is arresting, and as the appreciative crowd sing along to these topical lyrics, it’s hard to sum up what it is that makes Cameron so intriguing.
He appears to be part Nick Cave, part crooner, and part pop artist, and as he removes his jacket, the upbeat synths of “Country Digs” accompany his arm being thrust into the air, striking a pose reminiscent of ’70s rock idols. This performance is immense, powerful, and at the front of it all is this enigmatic being who only hours earlier was opening up about his career to date.
Seated at the end of a table in Collingwood’s CIBI café around noon, Cameron recalls his desires to become a musician when he was younger.
“I was probably a teenager and it just seemed like the natural thing to do; very natural,” he explains, his dark hair complementing his pale skin as he rolls a cigarette. “I just was drawn to it, recording little components, little tunes, on little keyboards that had been given as hand-me-downs from cousins or something.
“Then, me and Roy started a band in high school, I played drums and Roy played bass,” he adds, motioning to Roy Molloy, his saxophonist and business partner who is seated to his right. “We weren’t the songwriters in that band, but we were definitely committed to it, and that’s when we started getting gigs on the circuit in Sydney.”
Though by his own admission he “didn’t really have a plan” for a solo career down the line, Cameron notes that his decision to go out on his own came during his time as a member of Sydney’s Seekae.
“It was just a band that I was in at the time, one of the guys decided he wanted to go back to university, so I ended up with more free time than I thought would have, and I started writing that music then,” he recalls, referring to what would eventually become 2013’s Jumping the Shark.
“We were working in a pizza shop together and Al came in with the demos of Jumping The Shark, and I thought ‘Man, that stuff is shit hot’,” Molloy adds, “It felt like something we could take on the road.”
In fact, the story of Cameron’s solo debut is something of an oddity. Originally released independently in 2013, the album received physical distribution in Australia the following year, before acclaimed indie label Secretly Canadian gave it a wider US release in 2016.
By the time the US crowd had come around – including The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, who named it his album of the year for 2016 – Cameron was already moving towards 2017’s Forced Witness, though he admits it wasn’t a surprise to see the record receive a second life.
“We were touring it the entire time, hoping it would get re-released,” he explains. “Most people had told us it was impossible because once it’s out there, it’s out there, but that’s just a lie.
“A lot of people feel, in the music business, that it makes their job easier if the music they’re pitching is unheard, but if you’re talking in the context of an industry where there’s millions of ears, most new music is unheard. So it’s just about finding the right people whose passions are in the right place, and they’re excited.”
“For me it wasn’t so much surprise as like, ‘Way to go, everyone’s finally caught up’,” Molloy adds. “To my ears at least, Jumping the Shark is a fucking great record. It felt like it had been under-received in Australia, so it made sense to go over to the states for it to get the life that, I feel, it deserved.”
In fact, this well-deserved overseas attention ultimately resulted in a friendship with the likes of Californian duo Foxygen, and the aforementioned Brandon Flowers. By the time 2017’s Forced Witness was released, it had utilised Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado on production, and Flowers providing guest vocals, after Cameron had provided songwriting skills to The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful.
“The Foxygen story started in Paris, we played a show at Silencio [a noted club owned by filmmaker David Lynch], and the Foxygen guys came in to check out the venue and left a letter in Alex’s backpack saying ‘Come on the road with us, send an email here’,” Molloy recalls.
“At that time, Alex and I were rock and roll, so we went home, squirrelled away a couple of grand, went over to the states, and went over and did this huge tour with them.
“The Killers one happened via an email from Brandon Flowers. I remember we were in a car in Florida somewhere, we’d just played a show to probably ten people, and Al got this email.
“We don’t really know successful we are in Australia until we come over and play shows.”
“He thought he’d signed up to a mailing list, like a Killers mailing list, but on a second read of the email it was actually Brandon Flowers writing to say he’d loved Jumping the Shark and he thought it was a wonderful record. I don’t know how Brandon came across the record, I should probably ask him one day.
“We’re always shocked, it’s always strange when people – people who already have an audience and who we admire – come across the music. I mean, Hot Fuss came out when we were 15 or 16, and I thought that shit was so sick. The more it happens, it’s still a surprise when someone who we admire reaches out. If I want to be a wanker about it, hopefully that’s a measure of the material and the records being good enough.”
Since these relationships flowered, Cameron’s constant presence on European and American stages has made it seem – at least to a casual observer – that he’s become one of those rare artists who are bigger abroad than in their home country.
“It’s hard to gauge our popularity here because we don’t really get radio play on a national broadcaster, or mainstream radio, so we don’t really know successful we are in Australia until we come over and play shows,” he notes.
“But, I think if we stayed here for a while and had a crack at it, we could probably get it going at the same rate it’s going overseas, but I’d say in Europe and America there are definitely more listeners, but there’s also more people there.”
As Cameron ducks outside to smoke a cigarette, a staff member from the café delivers three coffees, causing Molloy to note how good it is to be back in Australia “sipping on this high-class coffee” in favour of what’s available in North America.
“The US is about the same size as Australia geographically, but with many hundred times the population, and the cities available,” Molloy explains. “I mean, we can go to a place like Pittsburgh, for example, and it’s comparable in the size to Melbourne, I guess. I feel like there’s more work in the states, so we tour more, and touring for us is how we tend to build the fanbase.
“I think a lot of what me and Alex does lives on the stage, so we’ve always really cared about the quality of the stage show and making sure it’s entertaining and special. So we really needed an environment where we could project it via the stage to people directly.
“I guess that’s the core of what we’re trying to do up there; do it properly.”
“Alex noted we played in a band back in the day, and around the mid-’00s, the whole thing was that you’d get up in the clothes that you’d worn that day and affect like you maybe didn’t care about what was happening, and the reality was that we cared very much, and it was important to us that the show be magnetic and memorable.
“We set about doing that in a very open way, and I guess that’s the core of what we’re trying to do up there; do it properly.”
For some time, Cameron’s live show served as a similar oddity to many onlookers. Adopting the persona of a failed musician when he took to the stage, it would have been easy for those unfamiliar to write him off as a performance artist who took too much of an avant-garde approach his live shows.
Often these personas also attracted criticism, too. In 2017, the New Yorker referred to Cameron’s persona as a joke that may go “too well, or too far”. For Molloy though, these performances were closer to a display of transparency for Cameron.
“It’s all been very genuine for me and Alex, it’s all been a lot closer to reality than I think people realise,” he explains. “Especially the writing and all that, there were personas involved, but I think it all comes back to doing it properly, trying to put on a show, and trying to stand up on stage and instead of being your bummy self, you be your most entertaining and engaging self.”
Though these personas have helped to complement the focus of his albums in terms of their approach and utility – in fact, Forced Witness itself was described as a “delightful and at times outright offensive journey to the center of the male psyche” by Pitchfork – 2019’s Miami Memory appears to showcase a completely different side of Alex Cameron, one that sees his music coming from a place of honesty this time around.
“I think the album came quite naturally,” Cameron states. “It was almost a matter of making sure I wasn’t presenting myself with any obstacles. It was more about taking obstacles away rather than stopping myself and censoring and editing, it was very much what happens naturally is probably going to be the best thing.
“If I’m writing a character, then it generally requires a great deal of thought, a lot of editing, a lot of extra writing around the songs to get my head in the space to write for a character. Whereas if I’m writing for myself, I can speak a little more freely without having to construct a world for this song to exist in.”
Indeed Miami Memory does flow more freely. Written as a gift of sorts to his partner, US actress Jemima Kirke, the record sees Cameron range from the tender (“I don’t even need those other ladies/I don’t need to make up my mind” on “Other Ladies”) to the explicit (“Eating your ass like an oyster/The way you came like a tsunami” on “Miami Memory”), but at all times managing to complement his music with lyrics that constantly leave you looking back for things you might have missed.
“If I’m writing for myself, I can speak a little more freely without having to construct a world for this song to exist in.”
“When I’m writing the music…” Cameron begins. “Once, Roy said it was like a Trojan horse – you’re trying to pack these broad universal ideas into extremely specific stories so that the morals and the themes and ideas that are contained within the songs are only truly understandable after multiple listens.
“Once you get to know the song, maybe it’s an earworm, or maybe you like it, or maybe it’s catchy and it becomes sort of like a soundtrack for a moment in your life, only then do you start to consider what it’s about.
“I think that in the more hard-hitting stuff, the darker songs, I like to think that it’s pretty easily digestible and pretty easy to understand with a very basic comprehension of what a fictional story can do for you as an audience member. That is, communicate themes and stories and ideas in a way that’s energising and a very organic, understanding experience.
“I mean, I grew up being told stories that had morals, like fables and folk stories, and always carried a certain sense of meaning with it that is not always necessarily specific to a generation or a time, but to the human condition, and that’s kind of the goal.”
The album’s final song, “Too Far”, actually sees Cameron at his most open and raw, with the track concluding with a heartfelt monologue aimed at Kirke (“The truth that you’re an artist, you’re an actor/And a real motherfucking powerhouse“). Despite the entire album being a departure from his previous focus on characters, this level of honesty featured no apprehension on Cameron’s part.
“I feel that all of the albums have been quite honest and quite raw,” he explains. “The only difference is that I’m not putting the microscope on characters, I’m putting it on myself. That was the challenge, to make sure that, I’m kind of checking with myself to make sure that I’m studying myself as well as characters.”
Above all though, it’s apparent that the most important aspect of the record’s 2019 release is that of the reaction from fans; something which Cameron notes as being “unreal” this time around.
“The shows have become definitely our most vocal shows, the most anthemic, concert-feel that we’ve ever had,” he explains. “People are really singing along, to the point where they’re louder than the PA. As soon as the record dropped, we had people singing the entire concert, all the new tracks.
“We’re doing something right. It’s really rewarding, it kind of took us by surprise. If we’re surprised by anything, it’s how vocal the crowd have been around the world. A lot of singing. It’s actually turned our job onstage into much more of a transaction rather than a sales pitch. We used to be pitching people our show, saying ‘This is why you should like it’, but now it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s just enjoy these songs together’.”
“We’re doing something right.”
“It’s not particularly physical for me to do a show, I don’t do a lot of moving around,” adds Molloy. “To get up onstage, there’s a real buoyant feeling to it. I’ve found it easier, I mean the shows fly by, it feels like the blink of an eye. People singing at you is the most wonderful feeling in the world.”
Of course, for an artist who has kicked so many goals across the last decade, the question of “what next?” soon springs to mind. Though growth as a live act springs to mind, the end goal for Cameron is far more humble.
“We played this support run with The Killers and played Madison Square Garden,” Molloy notes. “I’d love to go back and headline it. I don’t know if that’s too lofty of a goal [laughs]. That’s what my brain is telling me.”
“I think that right now, the discussion between me and Roy is at what point do you consolidate and stop trying to grow, and instead, make it sustainable?” Cameron asks. “Because, we’re doing big rooms in America and Europe, and it’s starting to get that way here, but the question in, ‘Do we need to keep upgrading? Is that the right mentality to have?’
“I wonder if a lot of bands end up fractured or disillusioned because they’re constantly expecting growth. When maybe doing 1,500 people a night in major cities is where we should cull it, and focus on that sort of room. Once you start doing arenas, you have to change your show, and it becomes a totally different process. So we’re kind of just contemplating what our next step is.
“I would like radio to come around and start to be pressured by the size of our live audience. I would like radio to feel obligated to play us, because they certainly don’t want to play us as a new hype act. They’re going to have figure out whether they’re going to ignore us and the fact we have a large audience, or they’re going to have to get on board – and I’d like them to get on board, but we’ll see.
“If we were to grow quickly from here, it would be because of radio. We’re doing a lot of work online, and we’ve got a healthy audience. We could live like this, it’s great, but if we want to keep growing it’s going to have to involve the industry coming on board a little bit and feeling that pressure because of our audience who have come to us organically.
“The audience is amazing, and really eager to listen to music. It’s exciting that they still want to soundtrack their life with what I consider to be good music, y’know, our music. It’s wild, to me it’s just bizarre that the industry can ignore us for so long.
“Experts are saying to us, because they want us on the radio, but I think it would involve some kind of editing of the subject matter that we cover, and I can’t see that happening.”
“It’s not something that I really care about. There’s only one worse look than complaining that triple j doesn’t play you, and that’s complaining that triple j doesn’t play you anymore. We haven’t had either luxury, we’re just trying to keep our heads down and continue working, and maybe that support will come one day.
“It’s not a concern of ours, we’ve got it good. A really strong fanbase that have been so supportive and so cool to us, and we could just keep going like this and it would be sweet.
“Experts are saying to us, because they want us on the radio, but I think it would involve some kind of editing of the subject matter that we cover, and I can’t see that happening.”
Despite a lack of radio play working against them, neither Molloy or Cameron are worried that this will prevent them from delivering a world-class live show, or that a sudden influx of radio play may make their shows less intimate and special.
“We’ve grown this show from playing to 10 people and going to play to hundreds in big rooms, and it’s no concern that any of the genuineness on our end will fall away,” Molloy concludes. “With every new person that’s joined the fanbase, it’s just gotten warmer and nicer feeling at the shows, so I don’t think that’s a concern.”
“It’s been a real natural, organic growth over a long period of time,” adds Cameron. “I don’t think we’re going to leap to a level that we’re not ready for. We’ve played in arenas as a support act, so we know what that’s like, and learnt from the best. I see any kind of growth as something that we’re prepared for.”