Inside Alex Cameron’s Theatrical Realm

Photo and Interview by Allison Lapinski

Alex Cameron and Roy Molloy on the new album “Miami Memory,” PC culture, and more.

Alex Cameron is an ingenious singer-songwriter, and the voice of what some critics term “sleaze-pop.” But Cameron’s music is a bit more complex than this category leads on. The Australian-native’s first two albums, “Jumping the Shark” and “Forced Witness,” built a fictional universe, consisting of caricatures and commentaries on topics such as toxic masculinity.

On songs like “Marlon Brando” and “Real Bad Lookin’,” for example, Cameron introduced an absurd persona to his audiences— and he does not work alone. Joined by his “business partner” and collaborator Roy Molloy on the saxophone, the duo is known to shock audiences with their consuming and dance-worthy live show. 

Cover art for “Miami Memory”

In September, Cameron released his third LP, entitled “Miami Memory,” under Jagjaguwar. Listeners may have sensed a shift from the earlier sounds, due in part to production from Jonathan Rando. The new material allows for moments of unironic authenticity and political commentary, the songs remain ornate with Cameron’s trademark humor and charisma. Before the band’s intimate session at Reckless Records and their late-night show at Thalia Hall, I got a chance to sit down with Alex and Roy to delve deeper into the live show and the political nature of the new album.

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Congratulations on the new album by the way.

Alex: Thank you so much. 

Roy:  Thanks.

Of course! Seeing that you are playing over 100 shows in 2019, do you like the consistency of tour or do you prefer to mix it up show to show? 

Alex: I think that I really benefit from routine. The setlist changes from time to time, but we have a batch of songs that we choose from. So we kind of always know what we’re going to play. And I mean, touring is — I am trying to find the right analogy for it. It’s good once it’s going. Getting going can be tough, and slowing down can be tough. But once its purring, it just keeps going. It’s an energy thing. Can you find the right analogy for it, Roy?

Roy: Um no analogy for it, but right now, we’re definitely in a sweet spot, we’re like 10 days into the North American tour. 

Well-oiled machine?

Roy: That’s right, now we can really do it, well personally, I can do it without thinking about it very much, I can just sort of float through the day.

So are there any extreme differences in how tour has been between here and Europe? And also, since this week was election week, did you see anything in crowds, maybe some distressed energy levels?

Roy: I heard something was in retrograde as well. So I guess we’re just waiting for that to pass on top of it being election week. The energies in the American shows have been so good. The once noticeable difference, and I don’t want to get in trouble with Europeans but uh I think Americans might be better, or more melodic, singers. 

Alex: There’s something to be said about that I think. The Americans tend to sing, like a choir. The Europeans tend to chant like an army. 

This is more of a question for Alex but I know that you do use makeup quite a bit onstage. Some might consider that a form of drag . When did you start wearing makeup for performances and has it enhanced your performances in any way? 

Alex: Well I have always played with things like makeup and outfits and theatrics. So I guess I would consider myself more theatrical than necessarily a nod to drag… And purely because it’s just not in my ballpark. There’s such a rich history in drag culture that I would feel a little ill-equipped to contribute to that. I started out with latex makeup on my face to age myself. I learned how to do it from makeup artists and I would use essentially like, liquid latex, and special effects to give myself wrinkles and lines and certain characteristics. I mean stage makeup is I think the way we employ it is to assist in the creation of a realm.  You know? A world. And I feel we’re building something here that is beyond music. Roy is writing scripts and longform, pieces, and they’re all just coming from the same world. Makeup I guess is just a very effective way of opening up that world and visually having people feel comfortable with me as their narrator for these characters. 

And I’m sorry, by the way, I did not at all mean to misinterpret how you use makeup.

Alex: Don’t feel bad at all. I mean there’s a dear, dear friend of ours, Paul Monroe, who runs the Greer Lankton Archives Museum. He’s essentially the head of the archives. And Greer’s work, a prominent trans artist from the 80s, is heavily influential on me as an artist. And I’m certainly going through an obsession with Greer’s work. So I mean, it’s there. I just wouldn’t claim to be, like, a part of it. 

So both of you, what’s your relationship in the studio with the saxophone? Is all of that on the fly or do you have an idea of how the riffs are going to go, and then work that into the songs? 

Roy:  Obviously on “Jumping the Shark,” we didn’t really have any saxophone. So it’s changed a bit from Forced Witness to “Miami Memory.” Just because we let Johnathan Rado [producer] take the reigns a little bit with Miami Memory. And so his tastes and his instincts, he influenced it a lot more than before. “Forced Witness” was a mix of stuff that we had come up with in the studio and then a few lines that, I guess Alex and I can’t remember who else. But there were a few lines that came ready made for me, and I just put my own breath down the horn.

Critics say that this album is different because you did away with the characters but you managed to still work in your signature satire and charm. Did you consider all of this conceptually when you were writing the songs for Miami Memory, or was it more natural in the lyrics themselves?

Alex: Sure. I mean, it’s certainly very conscious. And there are definitely decisions. But it’s always the path of least resistance. I find that when it comes to writing, my main challenge is ensuring that I’m not being an obstacle for the meaning of the song. Like if I am purposely getting in the way of what the song is trying to be, then that’s a problem. So whilst there are a few of the important moments of the songs are deeply personal, it still feels like these songs are coming from the same world as the other two records. I think that I like that we leave very little room for interpretation. It’s very clear what we do, and there’s not much ambiguity which I think is good. It’s.. I wonder if my obsession with clarity will evolve into something else. But right now I really just want to be clear, and honest, and transparent. And let the song, mean what it means.

I think that’s very evident in how you approach the whole “PC” thing. That phrase is mentioned twice on the album. And I guess I was wondering what you hope listeners take away from those songs. Explain to me how you feel about the “PC brigade,” as you call it.  

Alex: Yeah, so I think that the word, the phrase PC, has so many different meanings now. I’ve heard people use it as a plea for rational thinking and sensitivity and respect. And then I’ve also heard it used as an attack on free speech. So when I’m using the word PC on the record, I think it is coming from a place of … In one instance, “here comes the PC brigade,” it’s certainly like the fear of offending someone. You know, when someone says something offensive, and then they go on and say “well, here comes the PC brigade,” they’re really, probably a little bit embarrassed of what they said. Because they’re trying to undermine the fact that they probably should have thought about it a little more. Or at least, should be open to learning something about someone else’s perspective. The other instance on the record, 

“You don’t have to be so PC with me,” is more like I am using the phrase PC to break down a barrier between two people as they’re getting to know each other a little bit better. In the way that the relationship is so special that everything is on the table to think about. You know, I feel that any relationship that is going to work, communication-wise, then you have that moment where you realize ‘I can express myself, and I can be wrong.’ 

For sure, I feel like the terms “PC” and “woke” sometimes have a negative connotation. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. There’s always a person in a friend group who is maybe offering ‘oh did you consider this?’ And it doesn’t have to be a bad thing to consider things, I don’t know, intersectionally. 

Roy: Honestly I think the whole PC thing has been great. I let it dictate a lot of what I say and do and I think it’s good that people can’t just go around saying whatever dumb shit they want to say. When someone does say something off-color, that someone tells that person to fuck off is great (laughing)

Alex: Right, I mean all that happens is… The worst-case scenario is that someone says something that someone doesn’t consider politically correct, and they tell you that they don’t think it’s politically correct. That is the worst thing that could happen. I mean you also have people getting doxed and people are losing their jobs over something they said online. And honestly, if they said that stuff to their boss they probably would have lost their job too. It’s the fact that people are used to being able to say whatever they want to on the internet, where it’s committing to something forever and it’s public. 

Roy: I feel like it’s every week, internationally, that someone gets fired for some dumb shit they said.

Alex: Yeah. Around the world, men are being fired for some shit they tweeted. 

Moving on, I really like the message behind the song “Far From Born Again” and the women who are featured in the music video. Was there anything that happened that compelled you to write the song?

Alex: Well the song, “Far From Born Again,” came from just the fact that more and more, people who approach us after the show or maybe write to us online, are sex workers. For some reason, our music tends to resonate with that community. And on top of that, my girlfriend Jemima is an artist. She paints and she was doing a series, a collection of paintings on sex workers. So I got to meet and hang out with a bunch of people who were posing for Jemima’s paintings. In fact, while I was writing the album, I interviewed a sex worker, who I’ll call Faye, and we just spoke for like an hour and I recorded her and I listened to her. And the main point that I got from talking to her and learning about her life, is that, in popular culture, sex workers, especially in music, are so rarely spoken about as normal people. It’s normally like they’re seen as commodities.

Or, let’s say in political discourse or discussion of policy, they’re spoken about as if they live in some sort of fringe area that is like, super hard to figure out. It’s like ‘how are we supposed to make this work?’ And when I wrote about it in Miami Memory, it was like a very specific form of sex worker. A sex worker who sets their own rates and selects their clients. I think that the biggest shame when it comes to the way sex work is discussed, is that I think, because of traditional puritan values, um, there’s an intentional blurring of what sex work. So that they work in sex trafficking, and forced prostitution, with independent sex work. They say that it all comes from the same world of pornography. But, the fact of the matter is that it’s far more nuanced than that. And there is a thriving industry of independent sex work who need rights and struggle to obtain those rights because the general discourse about sex work is very negative, that it’s very dangerous and very scary. So I just wanted to write them an anthem because I really respect what they do. 

There’s a huge stigma in my hometown and even here about sex work. Sometimes I think it’s more symptomatic of something economic, but then at times it feels more of an empowerment movement. 

Alex: Yeah, I think it has elements of both. And I have a great deal of respect for anyone who is a sex worker.   

Correct me if I’m wrong. I feel like you like a good pair of sunglasses. If you had access to their sunglasses, who’s sunglasses would you go for- Bono’s or Elton John’s? 

Alex: Oh goodness. I think I would give Roy Bono. 

Roy: Thank you. I was gonna say, this is almost like a personality test. 

Alex: I think that I could make Elton’s work in a big way.

Roy: Every now and then I see a photo [of Alex] and I think of Bono. When you’re on stage and you’re really ripping in.

Alex: Yeah, yeah there’s a photo actually when we were in San Francisco. And I looked at it and went ‘holy shit I look like Bono.” 

[Laughter] 

That’s so funny, then you have to have your Bono lecture on stage.. 

Alex: Yeah yeah true. Well, I don’t know. Bono’s got some pretty hot shades. 

Roy: He’s got great shades.

Alex: It’s a win-win honestly. 

Elton’s really got the headpieces down. Although he does have those cool pearl shades. 

Alex: You really have to be soaring to pull off Elton’s. 

Roy: And then with Bono you really gotta earn the right to wear glasses like that. 

Have you seen the Elton John biopic? 

Roy: Not yet.
Alex: No, but weirdly we’ve become friends with Taron [Egerton] who plays Elton in the film. He’s a complete sweetheart and we hang out and he likes our music. And we met just as he was finishing it and he was so stoked on it. I still haven’t fucking seen it. I’ve been so busy on the road. I thought I would have a lot of downtime but turns out, no. 

Once the tour is over though, you’ll have time to catch up.

Alex: Absolutely

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As for Friday night’s show, the Chicago crowd was completely in sync with Alex and Roy. The debut song, “Bad for the Boys,” was a strong opener for the night. As a sort of sequel to the 1976 song “The Boys Are Back In Town,” Cameron narrates: “Never thought I’d feel bad for the boys / Good old Dane, what a shame / He got done for a sexual harassment claim.”  

Further on in the show, the audience reveled in Roy’s 4.5 star-review of the stool he was sitting on onstage. The entranced crowd began chanting Roy’s name furiously, all of them in on the weirdness and spontaneity of the moment. 

Once the night closed in, Cameron slowed down the tempo with his duet “Stranger’s Kiss,” originally performed with Angel Olsen on “Forced Witness.” The skewed ballad feels like a romantic gesture on the surface; but upon closer look, it is a metaphoric and tragic break-up song. Even then, the audience loyally sang along to the cunningly self-aware lyrics that seem to both challenge and coincide with PC culture.

Don’t miss out on Alex Cameron’s North American tour as he comes to a city near you. And as he says, bring money.

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