Making It with Alex Cameron

Words: Emilie von Unwerth
Images: Hudson Hayden

August 27 2016

Musician Alex Cameron is telling me about how, as a child, he was unsatisfied with anatomy of his toys – he found their designs entirely too unrealistic. This bothered him so much that he’d re-form the bodies and limbs himself with Blu-Tac, a putty-like adhesive used for hanging posters.

“My mom used to have it in her office drawer, and I would go get a whole roll of it and design my own toys so they were more fluid… So that I could play with them better, you know?” says Cameron, whose album Jumping the Shark was recently released on Secretly Canadian. “I was never satisfied with the way things were. I always wanted to have full articulation with these toys. And then my mom started saying, ‘Well, instead of making toys why don’t you write down stories?’ I was making a racket, you know?”

A clever move from a mother tired of her kid stealing her office supplies that inadvertently spawned a love of writing and a desire to tell stories.

Now an adult man, Cameron opts for a more oral form of storytelling. Although he self-released Jumping the Shark independently years ago, the record is now getting the attention – and label – it deserves. He tells me about the lengthy process that was finding a label – one that took about three and a half years. “I believe that this industry’s about finding the right people to work with. It’s not necessarily about the biggest label or the most money or anything like that. I already knew what I wanted in a label and in management and major things like that, so really the process was a matter of [finding that]. Because I think what the most important thing is, is that you as an artist maintain the workload. You do the work. Even if it’s press and content or whatever the hell you want to call it these days, I want to be in control of the whole show, you know what I mean?”

And running the show, he has been. Cameron, a New South Wales, Australia native, toured on Jumping the Shark without help for years before being signed. “I toured Europe and then America without a manager and without a label. Just me and my business partner Roy Molloy (below), and we got shows where we could,” he says. “I was just writing emails to people saying, ‘Here’s my album, I want to play in your venue.’ Or, ‘Here’s my album, I want to support your band.’ Or just, ‘Here’s my album.’”

Slowly, Cameron explains, the record gained more and more traction and eventually garnered the attention of the folks over at Secretly Canadian. “It was long and it was hard work. A lot of suffering.”

Touring on a, for-lack-of-a-kinder-term, unknown record for three years can be… tiresome. Playing the same songs nightly to crowds who aren’t necessarily there for you, after all, could have the tendency to get stale. But Cameron’s outlook exemplifies the magnificence that is DIY culture: if you love what you make – really love, and really believe in it — you can do it forever, you can do it until people notice you. “I think I got lucky that [this set of songs I’ve written], they might just be good songs you know?” he says, coolly. “I’ve written records in the past that I hated, that I wanted to stop playing. But I think without any major success or without hype, I’ve managed to be able to still surprise people.” The beauty in being relatively unknown is that you’re new to most everyone. “No one really knows what to expect and, in that same way, I don’t really know what to expect because they don’t know my music, so I’m excited because I’m playing to new people every night.”

Jumping the Shark is a lovely 30-minute new wave storybook. The synths, in all their primitive ’80s glory, combined with poignant lyricism delivered via a baritone voice (that is, if comparisons are your thing, reminiscent of Bowie and Nick Cave) come together to make the album a banger from start to finish. I’ve spent a lot of time with record, I’ve had pillow talk with it. I know it well. It’s safe to say that I really, truly love it. Every song is good, every song is lovely – a word I continue to come back to throughout the interview – and unpretentious and dark. And in the pop music realm, where effects reign supreme, it’s nice to hear a real, true voice shine through.

The nostalgic aspect of the record alone is enough to enchant listeners. Many of us are wistful for a time we’ve never known, or if we knew it we were too young to really be living in it, and Jumping the Shark recalls the synth pop of yesteryear we’ve so been yearning for. I think, perhaps, one of the chief qualities that makes this record so great is the universality of the feeling it evokes. “I’m writing about human qualities that are consistent through our history. I’m humanizing tragedy and I’m personalizing it,” says Cameron, noting that he finds it more interesting to relate to a personal tragedy rather than one experienced by mankind as a whole. “I think that in a way, with the way we’ve all been raised with the internet and the way people are developing as humans, it’s actually quite a self-involved process, life now. It’s all very much about being concerned with one’s legacy and one’s appearance. The opinions that we have are also sort of qualified, so what I think people are relating to with it is this sense of personal tragedy.”

Who have you been reading?
Donna Tartt, Harry Crews, Peter Carey

Who have you been listening to?
John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.), Infinite Bisous, Gábor Szabó, Foxygen, Angel Olsen, Lost Animal

Who inspires your video aesthetic and direction?
Paul Thomas Anderson, George Saunders, books and authors

What have you been eating?
Chambelland in Paris has this loaf of bread which is made with apricots, figs, hazelnuts and sultanas. It is the best bread on the planet. I’ve been putting figs on everything – fig jam, fig butter.

We talk about self-pity – an overarching theme on the record – and about how throughout our lives we’re told to overcome it, to distance ourselves from this particular state of mind. “These characters in my stories, they deny [their feelings] like anyone does,” he says. And while Cameron’s writing process involves, to an extent, real-life events, he develops personal experience through fiction. “I highlight certain things and I amplify certain elements in order to highlight a sense of tragedy.” This results in what Cameron says isn’t a judgmental or alienating story, but rather a relatable one. “It doesn’t need to be scanned for approval, it can just be inherently accepted as a quality of human life.”

Characters in the stories, he says, more than once. The record does play like a short story, one that is told from the perspective of the sad saps that indubitably live within us all: a loser who lives with his parents, a hapless woman sitting wasted and alone at the bar, a has-been getting sacked from his job. Despite this fact, Jumping the Shark isn’t a downer… it’s quite the opposite, really. “I think what I try to do melodically, and with the sound, is to create this kind of uplifting record that hopefully highlights the fact that we can accept [our personal tragedy] and move on from it as well as deny it,” says Cameron. “I think that accepting it is actually the only way forward, emotionally.”

Exploring the facets of basic human emotion is a concept Cameron has taken to other aspects of his existence, particularly the self-involvement hub that is social media. Cameron, along with his business partner and saxophonist Roy Molloy, recently wrapped up a European tour with Mac Demarco, and are about to set off on the U.S. with Angel Olsen. If you poke around on Cameron’s Facebook page, which I highly suggest you do, you’ll find a bit of a living diary going on. Long, considered posts fill the page – these entries, they’re heartfelt, well-thought-out reflections. They’re also relatively humorous, although I’m not sure that’s what Cameron and Molloy are going for. After talking to him a bit, I can’t exactly tell where Alex Cameron’s motives lie; I can’t tell where the line is drawn between solemnity and humor, or if there is one. All I can tell is that nothing is happenstance – everything he does is intentional.

“I just wanted to humanize the experience, you know. I think that all of those videos and memes and gifs, they’re not really relatable. They don’t necessarily make you feel like you’re part of a community. It feels very individual, all that stuff,” he says. “And so I just wanted to write something more in the same field where everyone is writing less. I think I knew that as soon as I started saying something frank and honest on Facebook that it would develop into a following because you don’t get a lot of that.”

Indeed you don’t. Alex Cameron does a lot of things you don’t get a lot of these days. The man is a performer, through and through, a fact easily gathered watching his music videos as well as his live shows. When I asked him about his slick dance moves and his wonderfully minimal music videos (which are focused on said moves), I was received with a simple, poised answer. “I tell stories with my voice and I represent the music by my movement, and the way it comes through with saxophone. And it’s hot as hell, you know. The show we put on is really hot. I just want to make sure people know that I’m here to make a statement, and I’m here to give everyone a good time,” he says, thoughtfully. “And at the same time I’m here to inspire people and try and uplift them beyond the self-consciousness or style. I want them to know that there’s more beyond what they’re used to.” •

Jumping the Shark is out now on Secretly Canadian. Cameron will tour the U.S. with Angel Olsen this fall.

Hudson Hayden is a photographer based in Berlin.