What Cameron does lyrically has its parallels in Lana Del Ray, who evokes a certain withered camp vision of the gender binary, exaggerating vintage feminine Americana with lyrics like “my pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” and “pink flamingos always fascinated me.” Cameron’s poetic pastiche of dated toxic masculine signifiers, his bursts of melancholy transcendence, paired with his taste for vintage sounds, creates a highly specific, ecstatically sad vision of a should-be-obsolete mode of sexual posturing. While on his last album, Jumping the Shark, he sounded like a lounge singer pouring his tar-blackened guts out for no one in particular over crude drum machine beats and the perfectly cheap sound of synthesized organ, Forced Witness has a grander sound, thanks to a full band and co-production by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado. Here, you can kind of imagine a pervy version of Bruce Springsteen playing Giants Stadium, where he and everyone in the audience are hooked up to both life support and the Craigslist Casual Encounters page.
In New York’s gorgeous oasis of the dead, Greenwood cemetery, I meet Alex Cameron and the other half of Alex Cameron-the-band, the shaggy-haired, dry-humored saxophonist Roy Molloy. When I arrive, Cameron’s napping on a hot sidewalk. He wakes up; he’s courteous, arrestingly down to earth, and markedly, another millennial. When I first saw him in a music video, he’d been wearing latex skin wrinkles— something he often did a few years ago, and though I knew what he really looked and sounded like, those early images had stayed with me. (It doesn’t help that he’s sporting the stick-on agedness on the cover of Jumping the Shark.) “My focus shifted from using age as a metaphor to wanting to use other costume cues, and different cosmetics as well,” he tells me. “I wanted to disarm that metaphor — I didn’t want to use it anymore. It’s something I’m at peace with now from that first record. I’m moving onto something else — it’s like a different film.
Forced Witness has a somewhat thorough summary in a man equating himself with “Marlon Brando circa 1999.” Cameron tells me specifically why the idea of someone using this analogy speaks volumes to how his characters interact with the world across Forced Witness. “The usage of feeling like Marlon Brando is inherently misguided, inherently out of touch,” he says. “Not only because of the time, but also because he was a figure who had some detestable qualities. And in 1999, he’s depressed, out of work, he’s fallen from grace. That’s my way of saying in that song, that the narrator we’re listening to is unreliable and massively flawed as a person.”
The narrator, singing over goofy, jubilant synth and bongo drums in eerily upbeat inspirational late ‘70s/early ‘80s pop, creates a whole song about calling another man a “pussy” and a “faggot” and asserting he can “bench what he is.” Cameron emphasizes, “It was a discussion I had to have with myself and with the close people around me about the responsibilities I had to accept about being an artist that was gonna broadcast a character that had those ideologies. Where does one draw the line when you as a person believe in progress, but as a writer feel like you need to focus on people who would challenge that, who would ask us to regress? So I feel challenged by that song, still — it’s about people that, if I could flick a button, ideally wouldn’t exist. But unfortunately they do; we’ve been confronted by them in Australia, and in our travels. I felt it’d be more irresponsible as a straight white man to not represent that, to not address it, to not challenge it in a song.”
He sees the song, and many on the album, as a gradual dismantling of the character’s façade. “I’m quite confrontational with those kinds of people in everyday life, so it felt like a natural progression to tear this guy to shreds in a song by becoming him and revealing his weaknesses.” Somewhere between parody and poetry, Alex Cameron sings from the perspective of the sad-sacks he’s seen, or “seen”; as he put it in a letter to the press, which is worth quoting in full for its curiously wonderful pairing of irony and, it turns out, total sincerity:
“And I seen a lot. I’ve seen beauty corrupted and badness broadcast on distant frequencies. I’ve wiretapped men’s support groups and decoded transcripts from racist clubhouse meetings. I seen crushed ecstasy tablets peppered across the tops of outdated hi-fi consoles. I seen couples fucking on the front lawns of mansions until both are absolutely sure they can’t orgasm… I’ve got whole dark rooms of hanging images and photographs of a feller slowly transforming into a small, companion sized dog. I’ve even intercepted love letters from women in dysfunctional marriages written for new loves. And whilst going through trash cans and garbage bins, I’ve overheard the confused ramblings and private arguments between oblivious straight white men. I clocked all these leads and I made a file. Because these aren’t things you keep in the dark. You shine a light on the badness and you strive to understand it. You want these fucks out in the open paddock, wet and nude, yelling their case feebly over the cold winds of investigation.”
I learn that this statement about what he’s “seen” at least seems grounded in truth: Cameron very earnestly describes the day job he held back at home (when he wasn’t performing in his band, Seekae), saying he “worked in a government legal office…helping people who were victims of police misconduct and stuff like that,” and that his songs-as-portraits are largely drawn from his time there. (Molloy, meanwhile, is a tram conductor when he’s not touring with Alex Cameron.)
Indeed, the dry humor surrounding their project is certainly rooted in the band’s own experiences. For instance, Cameron and Molloy really do call each other “business partners” — it’s not some suggestion of an imaginary, vaguely sinister side-enterprise they run. Says Molloy of their music-making collaboration, “We have poured all of our finances and time into a literal business that we’re obligated to try and make money for, contractually. It’s helpful, it means that if we ever do want to part ways in this venture, it’ll require us each engaging lawyers and dismantling the business that way.”
The funny anti-romanticism of it is actually both a joke and not a joke at all. Cameron adds, “It is about approaching it with a sense of work ethic. There’s no ‘I can’t make it to that one.’ Or ‘sorry I’m not going to be able to do that,’ because we had members of the band before who were very much like, ‘sorry I have tickets to a film I want to see tonight.’”
Cameron and Molloy have known each other since they were six years old, Molloy explains. They weren’t exactly the best of friends, though, until they bonded over an icon Cool High Schoolers bond over: “I wouldn’t say we were enemies, but it took a mutual interest in music like Lou Reed.”
Cameron mentions that now, “it feels like it’s just been a struggle to get back to that naivety.” He adds, “Because I never want to be overly informed. I’m vastly uneducated — I don’t have a degree in music or anything for that matter. All my experience onstage comes from working other jobs. So I tend to draw influence from everyday experiences, and certainly from my work.”
One of the key champions of Cameron and Molloy has been Angel Olsen, with whom they toured for her album My Woman. For those performances, the two made a haunting, sonically skeletal karaoke-like act of Jumping the Shark, with Cameron singing atop rote drum drum machine beats and Molloy occasionally blurting saxophonic poignancy behind him. But Forced Witness, and the tour that’ll accompany it, has a far fuller sound. “The albums we make all generally sound like how much they cost,” says Cameron. “But I want the music to have personality that’s in line with the characters. I’m pretty committed to that as a producer.” This album even features a duet with Olsen, a rare companion — albeit in the form of an excoriating ex character — for Cameron’s heretofore isolated voice.
In “Stranger’s Kiss,” the album’s most earnest (but still pretty sardonic) track — a duet/duel between two ex-lovers spitting bile at each other, emboldened by furiously mournful sax arpeggios — Olsen chimes in with an arresting clarity, “Don’t bother flying when we jump off the cliff/Make sure it’s head first if you don’t want to deal with what ifs.” Cameron says he’d originally written 12 to 20 verses for the song, and sent ideas to Olsen, who at the time had become his Internet pen-pal. When he proposed that it could be a duet, she picked a couple of verses, and they recorded in L.A. with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado. “It was important to create the right kind of sonic bed for her character; in that song the woman is stronger than the man,” he explains. “It was about giving Angel the voice of attitude and reason, and the voice I took on was being sort of beaten to a pulp by his own sense of self-worth and entitlement.”
Beyond Olsen’s cameos (she also provides backing vocals on the album’s first single, “Candy May”), Molloy’s saxophonic interjections themselves work in duet with Cameron’s vocals, farting out in impassioned solos above the other instrumentation on the songs. “I like that instrument because it has a vocal timbre to it,” says Cameron. “These days people sample other vocals, and what we’re doing is the same thing, using that timbre to evoke the human voice. There’s a quality to Roy’s playing that’s somber, and powerful.”
As on Jumping the Shark, Cameron’s characters’ relationship to the Internet — and how they find other (often unsavory) relationships through it— pervades the album, with the song “True Lies” most directly speaking to this theme. Here, with the same anachronistic classic rock sound that resonates across the album (augmented here by a flatly bold chorus), and the clear baritone of Cameron’s voice at its most beguiling and sad, his character sings a love ballad to a person he knows is catfishing him — and he’s probably catfishing them, too. And the character’s strange, lonely takeaway is that, so long as there’s a semblance of connection, it doesn’t really matter. “It’s surprising that as a theme [online romance] doesn’t come up more in songwriting,” says Cameron. “Like, did you guys miss this fucking world changing piece of technology that came along and altered the landscape of what it is to be human?”
As such, the perspective on this album, paired with music reflective of a pre-internet era, almost feel like they’re making up for lost time, coming from the early days of the Internet, before it became an inevitability, when it was still both a thing of wonder and suspicion and seediness. “The Black Mirror stuff doesn’t excite me, I find it a little preachy and judgmental,” says Cameron. “Trying to forecast some emotional doom and gloom for us, you lose touch with what’s actually happening to us as people right now.”
Perhaps for obvious reasons — the characters he’s interested in, the evocation of a world of seedy underbellies, the pairing of remove and rhapsody — Cameron’s music has already been compared a number of times to the work of David Lynch. And I wonder, at this early point in his career, whether it’s flattering or limiting to be pegged to such a known preexisting cultural world with its own preexisting vocabulary. “David Lynch has become part of the greater cultural consciousness, so it’s like saying, ‘It’s like a film,’” says Cameron. “I don’t have a problem with it — people like to categorize. I could sing in falsetto and people would still compare me to Nick Cave, I can’t do anything about it. It’s a mode of categorization that people do; it’s flattering. I’ve even gotten David Bowie, and I’m like, ‘Did you see David Bowie play? Are you aware of his achievements as an artist compared to what me and Roy have done? We’re two weeks away from having to go back to our day jobs.’”
Prior to the interview, I’d fretted that in talking to Molloy and Cameron, I’d be speaking with two personas — that I’d have to essentially play improv games to get good quotes from two actors engaging in durational performance art. But the Cameron and Molloy I meet are two very straightforward people, open and willing to talk about the less straightforward work they do, their confluence of unsavory persona, the warmth of rock we affiliate with the past, and the pervasive loneliness of the present.
“Forced Witness” is out September 8.