|Photo: Jason Sievers|
Inside the Linen Building anticipatory fans milled around wondering what was happening. Eric Gilbert instructed Talkative, the act following Cameron's, to go ahead and set up their equipment to give Cameron as much time as possible. Just when I was about to despair—Alex Cameron's act was the one I was most anticipating at this year's Treefort—he loped on to the stage, plugged in, got Roy and his sax situated, turned on the beat box, pivoted around with a smile, and launched right into storytelling. "I gave myself a goal on stage," he described elsewhere. "Start at the bottom, start where it can't get any lower, then climb. Elbow grease. Shine. Create light."
Cameron's debut album "Jumping the Shark" is a shiny labor of love that "holds its rightful place in the slipstream" (as he puts it), and which he hopes will carry him further still. A year and a half after the album's release, it continues building momentum. Cameron's stories huddle under a purposeful persona that melds new-kid-on-the-block bravura with someone who's already been around the block several times; yearning and world-weary in equal measure. It's a collection of tales he's written about his life in show business: the people he's met, the stories he's heard, the loves he's gained, and the fears he's developed. He pulled it together on his own coin after being rejected by eight record companies, had it mastered in the UK, gave it away for free at first on his under-construction website (downloads crashed the server), which maybe he didn't really want to do; but, isn't that the way it works these days in the music industry? It's an online wasteland with MP3s and FLACS and whatnot. And to paraphrase the good book, a quality act like Cameron's has no honor in his own wasteland. As he states it: "What do I know? I'm just the fucking guy making all the goddamn music. Nothing's the same as it was in 98. This net business goes real deep. Internet is fast. Maybe that means it's shallow."
Cameron's stylized self-deprecation furthers an image of frustrated success reflected in a mirror backed with silvered failure. It begs the question: how does one perceive a reflection? Especially the reflection of a persona? It questions whether success itself in today's marketplace isn't the consummate failure? For a while there he worried how many little rooms with no heart he would have to play before he ended up mopping the floor?
In his review of the album at Crawlspace, Shaun Prescott deconstructs what he believes to be the mythic conceit informing Cameron's embattled stage persona, stating "Alex Cameron buffers the uncertainty of experimentation with uncomfortable self-ridicule." And a review of Cameron's Facebook timeline (much of it bitingly—and hilariously—co-authored by Roy Molloy) is a heady mix of false starts and setbacks defusing any false sense of success, and yet chronicles an increasing performance schedule that bodes well. In essence, Cameron's is a coin toss where success and failure are the two sides of the same coin. "I don't read fine print," he writes. "So I don't get all hot about injustice." Even with nothing but heart, even with hard work, it's always just the luck of a flip.
I'm never sure if an act is going to match its recordings on-stage, but Cameron delivered full-force, adding dance moves wavering like underwater kelp and squatting close to the stage with an intense delivery that emphasized his popsynth post-punk performance, reminiscent of the early conceptual work of David Byrne, or David Bowie's white duke persona. Gynandrous flashes, evident intelligence, and the sensual texturing of Molloy's saxophone provided a fully satisfying set.
Otis Chatzistefanou phrases it best at The Berlin Agenda: "Embodying an elaborate theatrical statement about bitterness, Cameron's on-stage persona Ken Du Pont evokes a forgotten variety show host. Sleazily crooning over a lo-fi bedsit electro background that reeks of '80s demo cassette oblivion, a reductionist indie manière that has its own tradition, he sings songs of showbiz failure and dilapidated romanticism. The faded glamour of Cameron's alter ego is an obvious narrative of betrayed ambition and immediately insinuates the whole scenario as a futile act of pathetic protest about the harsh realities of depreciated stardom in the hyper-inflated download clickonomy." Wow. Now that's a description! Cameron deserves a write-up like that, which in a way answered his earlier wish: "I need someone to jump in the hot air balloon with me—cause we're headed for the eye of the storm and I'm gonna be doing the steering, someone's gotta report it."
Afterwards, I invited Alex and Roy for a couple of rounds across the street at the Modern. I felt they deserved a couple of really pricey drinks for the day they'd had. I was hoping to provide the calming excess of celebration. The Modern was incredibly noisy and cheers would go up every time the electric giant squids would float by, so it was regretfully not the place to have an in-depth conversation with Cameron. For that, I point readers to McLean Stephenson's killer interview at i-D, which soundly covers the bases. On my end, I knew even an informal chat would be difficult to transcribe with all the background noise, so I opted instead to just hang with the two, crack jokes, and cruise Treefort. I was real happy for them whenever someone reached out to them as we passed on the street, praising their gig. Way to go, Boise. Make sure they come back.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Background on this project?
Alex Cameron: We've been playing in bands since 2007. But this current show is something that started in 2013. It's been about 18 months we've been doing this properly. [I grin to myself remembering that Cameron's Facebook timeline started off in 2013 with a splashy backstage / onstage comedy skit / medley with Andy Williams, Bobby Darin and Vic Damone. Was that Cameron's fantasy of "doing this properly"?]
Guillén: What impressed me with your music were your stories. Great narratives with a sense of humor in the writing. My two favorite tunes are "The Comeback" and "Real Bad Looking." "The Comeback" was the first song of yours that really grabbed me for incorporating a critique of the music industry. Can you give me the back story on that song?
Cameron: The starting point was in London where I was feeling at 23-24 that I had already put so much into my career without any tangible results. I didn't know if what I was doing was working. I had this puzzling moment where I started to feel angry with the way it all worked. Musicians were building profiles and becoming successful without really having any music. I felt the whole world had stopped listening to music and was paying more attention to these weird marketing strategies. It felt torturous not being able to keep up with the internet. It seemed like a reality TV show, in the way that reality TV shows has destroyed written television, and in the same way that cheap marketing has destroyed songwriting. I mean, it hasn't obviously destroyed it because you can still do it and it's still powerful, but it's on such a mass scale and these great songs that I love don't even get heard. So the song developed from that point of self-pity to making fun of myself. I mean, what's there to complain about? We get work in Australia. We play regularly.
Guillén: There's an embodied world-weariness in that song that led me to believe you were going to be a lot older than you are. I was surprised when you walked on stage because you're a young guy. So, clearly, you enjoy slipping into the characters of these songs and acting them out?
Cameron: For me it's much more powerful to exist in the world of a song I've written. I like getting to actually tell a story. It also comes down as well to how the music sounds. Each song on the new record sounds like the voice of the song wrote it. The structures are simple, each are about 16 bars, but they build and build on each other. They're a collection of microscopic and almost insignificant tragedies that somehow carry this huge weight. I feel I have a right to sing about them because they're so small that I can make them big. I can write about these little things that happen to people.
Guillén: "Real Bad Looking" made me laugh out loud several times when I first heard it, kicking off with the bold provocative announcement—"I am the goddamn drunkest, ugliest girl at the bar"—following through with the line about checking on the kid in the sauna—"I hold my breath when I check just to see that she isn't a goner"—and then the defiant line—"who the hell are they to tell me that I can't leave my kid in the car?" I was impressed with how you embodied this drunk woman's voice and am curious to see how this is going to play in PC U.S.A. It's edgy. [Roy Molloy mentioned that a New York City radio station refused to play the song and Alex Cameron seemed unaware of that.]
Cameron: That song came from when I was walking around Cornwall, U.K., and the song literally popped into my head, especially that line—"I am the goddamn drunkest, ugliest girl at the bar." I thought, "How nice. How free that would be. I can do whatever the fuck I want." So the song is about finding that bottom level and—once you've reduced yourself to the lowest you can possibly be—then you can do whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. It's pure observation at that point.
Guillén: And then I like how you set her voice up against the guy—"I am the dumbest, richest guy at the bar." I've met that guy again and again recently in San Francisco where rich drunk techie assholes get plastered and feel the need to pronounce their entitlements. Between these two drunk low-life characters, you've created a vibrant dyptich where the two voices play off of each other.
Cameron: A part of me felt that I should tell both sides of the story. I didn't think it would be a particularly good thing to just bash a woman in a song, so I added him to tell both sides. And it's not that I'm trying to be judgmental of either of them; I just thought they were interesting characters.
Guillén: I didn't find it judgmental. If anything, the humor felt affectionate. I kind of like these drunk people, as you say, for being who they want to be. Just like I hope people would like me if I were that drunk in public. We all rant and rave at the bottom denominator now and again.
So Treefort is your first gig on your national tour opening for Foxygen. Are you excited? Have you played in the U.S. before?
Cameron: We did South by Southwest last year.
Guillén: How'd that go?
Roy Molloy: We were a failure.
Cameron: We did two shows there and then did a show at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn. We like to keep busy. With this tour we're going to work as hard as we can to get the most out of it.
Guillén: You're certainly going to keep busy driving between your concert gigs. You bought a Cadillac Coup de Ville in Los Angeles and are going to drive that around the country with gas being the price that it is?!
Cameron: Don't worry, it makes more sense. Otherwise, we would have had to rent a car, which would have cost just as much as buying one and would have driven us crazy. Also, it's kind of like: what are we doing to do? Not buy a Cadillac?
Guillén: "Jumping the Shark" is your first album?
Guillén: What's that title mean: "jumping the shark"?
Cameron: For me it's a scene from Happy Days.
Roy Molloy: And it's what we do in Australia sometimes.
Guillén: You jump sharks in the Great Reef?
Molloy: [Grinning.] Yeah.
Cameron: It's a risky thing, right? Essentially, the term means you're taking a risk, but it's a good thing. You're taking a risk for the sake of your ego. "Are you going to jump the shark or not? Go do it! Live your life!" It's like doing a back flip into a pool to get everyone's attention.