When you’re interviewing one of the most idiosyncratic rock performers in recent memory, it’s best to have them attempt to describe their art themselves.
“I really don’t fancy myself as a provocateur or someone that is trying to cause people to be uncomfortable – what I’m trying to do is make people familiar and ultimately process in a comfortable way things that are hard to talk about,” Alex Cameron told Tone Deaf.
Considering his latest album, Oxy Music, was created as a response to the opioid epidemic in America, it’s reasonable to envisage listeners – at least some – being a little uncomfortable. But it’s this sort of songwriting bravery that has made Cameron relentlessly challenging but always fascinating.
Accompanied by his excellent live band, Cameron returned to his home country, Australia, for his first shows on home soil in two long years last month. After a short hop to New Zealand, he’ll spend December supporting The Killers on their own arena tour.
While other artists would take time off to close out such a busy year, as Cameron told Tone Deaf, working hard is all he knows. You can read our full interview with Cameron below, and find tickets and tour information here.
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Are you looking forward to getting back to Australia?
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Deeply! Deeply. When we get down there, it’ll basically have been three years. I haven’t played a show there, I haven’t seen my family, it’s pretty consistent with how everyone else has been living. It’s the great shared trauma, you know?
You must also be looking forward to feeling the energy of home crowds.
Definitely. We spend a lot of time playing to foreign audiences to the point where New York feels like a hometown show now, and London feels like a hometown show now, and Paris etc. Covertly the goal is to make everywhere feel like a hometown show.
Coming back to Australia is so exciting. I haven’t been to Adelaide or Perth in a long time, it’s going to be fun. We’ve also had such a good time in New Zealand, we’re really excited to get back down there.
The world’s so big so we still go to cities we haven’t played before and it really shows. I’ve heard artists in the past getting put off by no one coming to their shows. When I talk to young artists now, I say there’s less than 25 bands in the world right now that can go to a new city and kick off. You’ve got to work towns, you know?
You’ve got to build it up organically.
Yeah, you’ve got to keep working it, you’ve got to keep putting on a show. If it’s only a couple hundred people there, you’ve got to put on a show as if there’s thousands. Every night is as important as the next night.
You even see pop acts cancelling tours. I think touring has changed a lot in the past year.
We came up not making money on tour so it’s not foreign territory for us. When a big act announces a tour and then cancels it, I’m often left wondering why, you know? I understand it’s extremely stressful, and I understand that everyone has a different tolerance for the emotional rollercoaster, but I’ve always treated it like a job, so it’s like at what point do you not turn up to work.
I think some treat it like a privilege rather than a career.
We’ve also got to remember that pop acts don’t make money on the road, they can afford to cancel. The ideal indie model would be to actually make a bit of bread on the road, to be able to go on tour and then pay your rent for three months.
You were last back in Australia basically the day before COVID hit, is that right?
We flew back from New Zealand, got into New York, and had to go straight into lockdown. So I’m looking for a different experience for sure.
Did you grow up in Sydney?
Yeah, mostly. I was raised between Sydney and a town about 10 hours north inland called Deepwater, which is a very small town. I grew up on a farm and then I grew up in Sydney, so I had a bit of the beach and a bit of the farm. I didn’t really fit in either!
Were there any venues in Sydney you especially liked going to as a teenager?
I loved going to the Metro. The Metro was where the cooler bands played – I remember seeing Hot Chip play there when I was 16 or 17. My mum got me tickets and I had a fake ID and it was really, really fun. And Hot Chip is still one of my favourite live bands. We’ve managed to play a couple of shows with them and shake hands a couple of times and they’re very fucking cool.
They’re very consistent too.
Deeply. They’re still one of the best live acts out there.
How did your connection with (support act) Sean Nicholas Savage come about?
We met in Texas in 2014. I’m such a huge fan. We’ve since been close mates and spent a lot of time together, and I’m still as big a fan of him now. He came on tour with us in the U.K. earlier this year and he’s never been to Australia so I thought he should come down. It’s going to be a real hoot.
Are you going to have a lot of downtime on this tour since it’s your first time back home in a while?
I don’t think so actually because we’re doing our nightclubs and then we’re doing support slots with The Killers in arenas. I’ll get to see my folks – I haven’t seen my mum and dad in a long time.
Are you terrified about supporting The Killers?
I’m excited. I’ve got no reservations. Most of my stress and anxiety comes on the actual day. Leading up to it, I just feel grateful to be working.
When you’re doing a support slot like that, do you alter your live performance because you’re aware the crowd’s going to be different?
It’s a little bit about considering the crowd but it’s also about considering the production. You don’t typically get that much of a soundcheck and you only get like half an hour onstage, so you’ve really got to hit your marks. It’s less about doing our show and hoping we can hook as many people with our songs. We’ll usually just get up and do 6 or 7 songs, bang, bang, and then clear out. They’re huge opportunities. We’ve done a world tour with The Killers before.
For the record, they’re extremely generous and supportive, and Brandon has been so good to us. They ask us what we need to do the shows, they take care of us. They pay us well, the crew is exceptional. That’s been our experience until this point and I have no reason to believe it’ll be any different.
Is your full band coming over?
We’re bringing the whole band. We were obviously worried about whether or not we could afford it but it’s worked out to be that we can. My old man always told me if the people around you are getting paid then you’re probably going to get paid.
I wanted to talk a little about Oxy Music. Your album is inspired by the opioid epidemic in the U.S. – how does that translate to an Australian listener?
(pause) I think people don’t really want to talk about it generally, and those are the things I like singing about. If I can start a thought in someone’s head that maybe they wouldn’t typically think about, then that’s part of the goal. It’s not the only thing I want to do but it is one of the things I want to do, make sure that I’m covering subject matter that excites me and is more or less turbulent, you know? I want to create turbulence.
Was writing about a character struggling so much a stand-in for yourself? Trying to make sense of the chaos of these last few years?
I guess so. I think it’s a little more personal. People assume I write fiction but a lot of the time I’m writing about myself through the guise of characters, especially on Oxy Music. It’s a pretty personal record. I felt it was more effective to amplify the fiction a bit so I could communicate my own experiences.
Elliott Smith used to do similarly in his songwriting.
Yeah, it’s a fine sort of blend, it’s a fine line. In one song, there can be a very personal line and a very foreign line. It’s not so consistent, it’s not so black and white. Operating in a grey area is where my best thinking gets done.
I think that’s where the best writing gets done in general.
I take writing as an opportunity to cover both myself and, if I’m good enough, other people as well. I get something coming out of the song and someone else can get something coming out of the song.
Speaking of good writing, how did you get (Sleaford Mods performer) Jason Williamson on the album?
He’s so good, he’s a fucking legend. He randomly reached out in about 2019. He started putting my songs on playlists when doing promo and what not. We met actually in Australia, in Wollongong at a festival. We got to talking, got along really well, had a mutual respect for each other, and then during COVID, I was lucky that I got a chance to travel to the UK in the middle of the whole thing to write a soundtrack. I just happened to be in the UK so I got a rental car and drove my way up to Nottingham.
We hung out a little bit and got to writing and I played him the instrumental and he was on board so we just started writing in the room together and it was amazing to see how he works. It’s nothing short of savant level writing. He’s got his own genius on his shoulder – I think he might be the only one with it. He’s got the gift of the gab for sure.
And what’s the plan for 2023? Do you need a break after having such a busy year?
I don’t know. Once you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll, it’s stopping that’s the scariest. At least for me, I don’t want to stop. I also have a lot of songs to write, the new record is already coming together, we’ve got a number of songs. I think I’ll definitely appreciate some time off to write.