An Australian rocker with a flair for subversive lyrics, Alex Cameron understands the perils of telling stories from the perspective of dubious and at times reprehensible characters. As the title of his album Forced Witness suggests, Cameron feels that he can no longer be a reticent spectator to the defects of our modern world. And while that may sound bleak, he believes he has an obligation to tell the truth, to explore the unglamorous nature of the everyman, without defending their actions or majestically redeeming them at the end of a song.

Photo credit Chris Rhodes

A majority of his songs harp on male entitlement, which emanates from his own “white male guilt.” So when Cameron narrates a story from the perspective of a man who is having an online relationship with a seventeen-year-old girl, (as in the song “Studmuffin96”), he needs to emphasize to the audience that he knows it is reprehensible and he knows it is male entitlement. He deems himself a storyteller first and foremost, and understands that it is a privilege to tell tales that people want to listen to. He does this with an emphatic delivery and an intentionally sleazy, manufactured stage presence that is captivating to watch. His lyrics are unfiltered and biting when delivered over Springsteen-esque melodies, and those deliberate idiosyncrasies are what make his music so engaging.

I spoke with Alex about his current tour supporting The Killers, how his controversial lyrics are received, and what inspired him to take such a bold, purposive songwriting approach.

Are you enjoying playing with the Killers? You guys seem like an unlikely pairing.

Yeah, I am actually. We do one of my songs on stage with them in front of the arena, so I was really nervous for some reason going on stage with them. All of a sudden it was their show and there was something at stake. But I have a lot of fun doing it, and I know what we do is strong, and it can also be pretty at times, so I’m just out there enjoying it. And I really don’t think I’m in a position to complain when you get such good quality work, and they take such good care of us in a way that’s been surprising. Their generosity has been really sweet.

Do you get nervous at bigger venues at all?

No, I get nervous at smaller venues. If we play a town we’ve never been to before and there are like 70 people in a small room I freak out. Free shows are the strangest things you’ll ever do as a musician because there’s no impetus for anyone to even be there in the first place.

I feel like your stage persona gets discussed a lot. Do you feel like that’s an extension of who you are?

I don’t really feel like I’m embodying the songs or that I am the songs, I feel like more of a narrator. In between songs I feel like it’s my job to officiate that balance between reality and the fiction of the music. [I see it] as my job to facilitate some sort of understanding and make sure everyone is grounded in reality, and then we can sort of adventure off into the songs.

Are people that don’t know your band that well receptive to your stage persona?

I feel like the first time they see it there has to be a sense of discovery. The most success I have [when doing] a support slot is when I’m really just delivering my own show and not trying to accommodate anyone. I’d rather get people on board because they like it and risk losing them because they don’t like it, as opposed to just try to get a middle ground and make everyone comfortable or happy. If people can enjoy it then that’s the priority.

Photo credit Chris Rhodes

You deliver your songs from the perspective of the characters you’ve created. Who exactly are these people?

I guess there was an element of me wanting to find subjects, especially on Forced Witness, that hadn’t been successfully explored yet. Because I only get really excited about things that I feel like I’ve discovered or that are [new to me]. I think ultimately the songs end up being about the everyman. It’s just the kind of language and stories you don’t hear because they’re not glamorous or ordinarily exciting to listen to. They’re certainly not celebrated, and I don’t think my album is even a celebration of those characters. They’re just stories that I’ve decided to tell. I’ve had a lot of experience working in different sectors, and a lot of the language I use on the record is just language that I was coming across every day with people.

I feel like living in a big city you get isolated from the every person.

Yeah totally, but that’s one of my main things. I was anticipating how the music industry would respond to the songs because they aren’t typical in terms of subject matter. And I’ve found that there’s been an element of surprise that someone would write like that, which is fair enough, but my feeling was that most music is escapism and that’s not what I’m doing at all.

Did you have a hard time convincing Secretly Canadian to let you put out some of the songs or lyrics that you did?

There was a lot of discussion, and I had to prove to them that I was an informed, intelligent person that knew what they were doing. The last thing you want to do is have someone who writes as an unreliable narrator then also be an unreliable person. I mean, I know who I am, I know that I’m a white guy who’s writing songs and that’s basically the definition of privilege. So I explained to them that if I want to be a male recording and releasing songs, it’s more offensive to use that opportunity to say nothing. If I take a message away from these songs it’s that there are flaws in these characters and they have a long way to go before they can count themselves as being rounded, progressive people. I read a lot of literature – I studied up on what it meant to be an author who was writing from the perspective of someone who was unreliable or someone who is damaged or flawed. So that’s why there are different genres and sounds on the record, because if I’m writing a song about a guy on the Internet I’m gonna use [a certain] aesthetic, and if I’m writing a song about a truck driver I’m gonna [incorporate] more of a highway rock feel.

Do you constantly meet people who feel like good subjects for a song?

Sometimes I’ll listen to what people say. My songs are mostly dialogue, and I think that people don’t realize how poetic they’re being when they’re just talking or expressing themselves. I don’t necessarily walk around stealing from peoples’ conversations, but I’ll definitely find that someone’s perspective is worth telling a story from. Even if it’s microscopic, it’s still worth telling.

Are any of the songs on Forced Witness more personal to you than others?

“Stranger’s Kiss” is one that I wrote specifically about a relationship that I was in. “Candy May” for the most part. Even a song like “The Chihuahua” was me taking the piss out of myself, and also [exploring] the way a man tends to lie to himself after a break-up to give himself a sense of hope that everything’s gonna be okay.

In the song “Marlon Brando” you say the word faggot. Do you ever have a hard time saying that word on stage? Does it sting a little when you say it?

Every night’s different when you sing a song like that. Because some nights the crowd will be a bunch of straight white guys, and before we play that song I’ll have to say ‘This is a song about straight guys. This is a song about how straight guys can tend to behave.’ And I just have to make sure I’m delivering it in a way that’s obvious I’m doing it with a sense of storytelling, of knowing the character is flawed. But the crowds have been really responsive to the fact that it’s a story that’s kind of dismantling a character as opposed to putting them on a pedestal. I think that people who were doubting the song’s credibility have been surprised at how effective the story’s been in terms of dismantling that archetype.

And when you’re doing something polarizing like that you’re gonna obviously isolate people, and then you’re left with the people you want listening to your music anyway.

I can’t be upset with someone for disagreeing with my use of certain words on the record. ‘Faggot’ is a brutal word, and I think that ultimately I’m satisfied with the way that story is told, because I feel like when I sing that song, the performance I’m giving is clearly an amplified delusion. Which is what I think male entitlement is. [When I wrote the record], the only subject matter I could really cover was the loser types, the down and out, because honestly I would feel like I was lying if I tried to write a positive record from the perspective of a white man.

Your next record isn’t gonna be about really charitable rich white men?

Yeah, exactly. It’s an incredible spider web of corruption that we’re dealing with societally. I also have a problem with songs about nothing. If you get in front of a microphone, regardless of who you are, you’re doing something that a tiny, miniscule percentage of people will ever get to do. And to not have the skills or to not be ready to write a story about something specifically I think is a waste of time.

Tickets for Alex Cameron’s February 22nd show at Lodge Room in Highland Park are still available. He’ll be supported by indie songstress Molly Burch. Purchase tickets here.

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