Alex Cameron’s Forced Witness is one of the finest records of the year. Not only does it explore postmodern themes such as catfishing, politics, masculinity and relationships in depth, but it’s an excellent throwback record to the 80s. Produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, it’s got all the charm of a Foxygen record with Cameron’s trademark crooning, lyrical bite. I sat down to talk to him and his friend and business partner Roy Molloy about their recent support slot with The Killers, the music industry, the Australian music scene and the characters behind his latest record.
Let’s talk about the latest album. Your songs are very character based, where do you get your ideas for these characters?
Alex Cameron: The ideas come from mostly everyday life. The songs aren’t really subversive. The stories aren’t subversive. The only irony I see in the songs is the language used by the characters on account that they’re oblivious. So when I think about it they’re extremely common instances, it’s just not common that they’re found in songs.
Do you have a favourite character?
Roy Molloy: I’m a big fan of the female character on ‘Stranger’s Kiss’, I just love it. I think it’s a really strong, pragmatic voice that really cuts through some of the nonsense that some of the other characters on the album are capable of thinking.
Could you tell me about that song in particular? How did that song come about?
Alex Cameron: Angel (Olsen) and I were sort of pen pals for a second and we started sending demos back and forth from each other’s records and we were picking ones that we liked. I looked at the emails the other day for nostalgic reasons and we were just talking about it and we happened to be in LA at the same time recording our records and she came down. We mixed some lyrics around, worked on some words and picked verses each and just did it in an evening out in the Valley in Los Angeles.
Have you had a chance to perform it live together yet?
Alex Cameron: No not yet, hopefully when we’re in America or something like that.
You write songs through some pretty detestable characters. Were you ever worried that your audience would think that was you?
Alex Cameron: Well, no because I’m pretty confident about who I am as a person. I don’t think that what I broadcast in my everyday life is anything like these characters that I sing about. The other thing is that I think the songs are written well enough and they’re strong enough, that in the DNA of the song is the traditional values of tragedy and drama. So I don’t think that the world has become so basic, so black and white or so grey scale that there’s not room for characters that are bullies, or are evil, or demented, or even foolish. In fact now I think, now more than ever, it’s been proven that those people hold positions of power. These major figures, they dominate the globe. So I don’t think there’s any risk of being confused about what the songs are about.
To add to that, I think you seem to explore masculinity and crippling masculinity in particular. Where does that interest come from?
Alex Cameron: That’s a good word for it I suppose. Just because it’s so prominent and so obviously there and it has been there, it’s just now reaching the mainstream media. We didn’t discover it, we’re not the first people to ever talk about it and we’re certainly not the victims of it in everyday society. But it’s just something that we have access to because we’re men and we see that and we’ve seen it at work, we saw it at school, we saw it growing up, it’s everywhere. I don’t think we’re the beacons of hope shining a light on it, I just think we’re writing songs about it.
You sing about the effects of the internet, in particularly catfishing on ‘True Lies’. What made you want to write that song?
Alex Cameron: Just communicating with people on the internet and realising that it wasn’t so important if people were real or not. What mattered more was the fact that I was getting an emotional reaction out of people and out of myself. When I saw getting an emotional reaction out of people – I mean people were giving me an emotional reaction – that was the consequence, not whether or not it was real. I think about how much more heartbreaking it would be to form a relationship with somebody online and then discover that actually they’ve fallen out of love with you, rather than being fake.
Has that happened to you?
Alex Cameron: No, but I think about it. If I met someone in a bar, went through a five-year relationship with them, found out the whole time that they were cheating on me and it was a rotten relationship to the core and it was supposed to work and we both broke each other’s hearts. That’s probably going to be more painful than if I had this beautiful internet relationship with someone and it turned out they were a robot.
You’re very vocal about the monetary problems and hardships of the music industry.
Alex Cameron: Hardships is not the word I would use.
What word would you use?
Alex Cameron: Challenging.
Roy Molloy: We’re vocal about what’s going on in our lives and we expose what we’re doing pretty accurately. I don’t know if it’s for cathartic reasons or not, but for a couple of years we’ve been broke because of a few decisions we made. You couldn’t call it hardships, but they’re results of consequences almost.
What do you make of the music industry?
Alex Cameron: I just think that it’s diluted, there’s opportunities out there but you’ve got to work a lot, you’ve got to have the opportunity to work a lot. You’ve got to be at the right place at the right time, that involves luck and the right platform to work from. I think it takes dedication, it takes the emotional support of people around you to make it. We’re still discovering what it’s like to work regularly, it’s the first year where we’ve had the opportunity to put down our other jobs and work on the road and try and make a living. If you want any insight, straight up we’re just not making any money right now. We’re playing shows and we can afford to have a band and we’ve got a manager and we’re essentially running a business that is floating but, as far as making any money is concerned, I’ll be happy when we can comfortably pay rent.
I think there’s a nostalgia to the new album and there’s quite a nice juxtaposition between the challenging themes that you’re singing about and the 80s vibe from the album. Where did this come from?
Alex Cameron: Probably just the synthesisers we were using.
Did you want to make an 80s album?
Alex Cameron: I knew I wanted to use certain synthesisers and they are late 80s, early 90s sounds so I guess it just came from the gear.
Did it have anything to do with producer, Jonathan Rado (Foxygen)?
Alex Cameron: No, I don’t think so. Me and Rado did a lot of the work and then Jacknife Lee worked on it as well. I guess we were thinking let’s make something really vibrant and sort of like these complex lush sounds and I guess that means it’s synthetic and it’s going to be linked to the 80s.
You’ve just supported The Killers. How did that come about and how was it?
Roy Molloy: How did that come about? I guess you never know what’s coming around the corner. We were in Florida playing a show and I guess maybe there were six people there. It was in a record store, as opposed to a venue and we were pretty happy with that. We were driving from Florida to the airport in a rental car and I didn’t realise but Alex’s phone had buzzed and I was driving and he sort of said “I’ve got this email” and it was from Brandon Flowers of The Killers, directly from him. And I guess there was some twists and turns.
So did he see you that night or was it just his management?
Alex Cameron: No, he just heard the record and wanted to get in touch. He invited us to Las Vegas, so we went out there and he’s just been offering us work so we’ve done it and it’s been awesome.
Was it nice to do The Killers’ tour over here and then do this tour? Have you seen any overlap of fans?
Alex Cameron: We’ve been selling more tickets, but I don’t know if that’s because the album’s been out or whatever. Their crowds have been really sweet to us.
Did you find that they got you as an audience?
Roy Molloy: There was 14,000 people there so I’m not sure what percentage of that got it, but there’s definitely been people online who have been seriously affected by it, which is a beautiful thing.
Alex Cameron: I don’t think there’s a huge amount to get. They’re just songs, you know?
The Australian music scene right now is doing pretty well. I would say it’s booming with the amount of artists that make it over here. You look at the likes of DMA’s, Courtney Barnett and Pond, was that an inspiration at all to want to make this as a career?
Roy Molloy: I think maybe you get the wrong impression overseas. The bands that you see in the UK and in America from Australia are typically ones that have kind of fired themselves out of Australia. They’ve exited the Australian music scene.
So they’ve kind of abandoned it?
Roy Molloy: I wouldn’t say abandoned, but I mean in the sense you would abandon a ship that was on fire and was taking water (laughs). We were unable to earn a living in Australia, put it that way.
Alex Cameron: Yeah, I dunno. I disagree, I think that all those acts you just mentioned got most of their money first in Australia and then used it to come overseas. We’re different, we moved overseas and then started working.
Are you based over here now?
Alex Cameron: Essentially based in America, yeah.
Finally, what bands are you into at the moment?
Roy Molloy: I’ve been kind of on this Jack Ladder kick since he came on tour with us. I’ve been into him for years, but to revisit a few of his records having seen him live each night was awesome. I’m still suffering the lingering effect of that.
Alex Cameron: Yeah, actually I listen to Jack Ladder a lot too.