Alex Cameron on “Oxy Music” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, April 23rd, 2024  

Alex Cameron on “Oxy Music”

The Language of Addiction and Survival

Mar 11, 2022 Photography by Cameron Carter Web Exclusive
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The enterprise of Australian rocker Alex Cameron brandishes many faces: a washed-up lounge singer, your local sleazeball getting scammed on the internet, porn-addicted bozos, Gen-X bros reckoning with their problematic friends. Through a creative partnership with childhood best friend, and saxophone-wielding business associate, Roy Malloy, Cameron has set his sights on telling the stories of the men that society’s given up on. But those characters never showed an interest in fixing their destructive ways, only bellyached over their own demises, and, on his 2017 breakthrough Forced Witness, Cameron strung their gross tragedies up like triumphant, fist-in-the-air anthems—as if his songwriting pedigree was akin to “St. Elmo’s Fire” or “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” playing from a strip club jukebox. Something that attracted me to Cameron years ago was his limitless scope of imagery, how he could so easily make a listener, momentarily, extend empathy towards total shitbags through brilliant lyricism and sexy, velvet arrangements. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime gift, a talent obtained by someone who understands both the complexities of the human condition and how our collective hearts default to what compassions we surround ourselves with.

2019’s Miami Memory offered a tamer squadron of outcasts, characters who leaned heavily on absurd, slurring tales of divorce, gaslighting, and fatalistic 12-step programs, while, lovingly, carrying more tender, romantic songs in tow. And Cameron, he writes his love songs unconventionally, refusing to tap into sappy or saturated tropes. He makes heartwarming declarations staked in necessary (and often taboo) pop song reality, like the anxious but prideful embrace of becoming a stepdad, eating ass, or championing a partner’s sex work while deconstructing the outdated stigmas in her industry.

He’s stretched four records into an already prolific spread, graduating from shock factor to heartbreaking realism. While the protagonists of his early work have become talking points, by listeners who don’t fully get Cameron’s bit, the people on his new album, Oxy Music, hold honest and tragic depth in their resonance and proximity, as we see them at family reunions, grocery stores, and on social media, and they, collectively, wrestle with mental illness, bulimia, culture hijacking, erectile dysfunction, and online fame during mass global fallout. But Cameron delivers his most beautiful work when he takes direct aim at the unbounded and habitual love lost beneath the unglamorous headlines of the opioid crisis, when he holds the forgotten humanity of addiction up to the light.

The video for “Best Life,” which was directed by, and co-stars, Cameron’s real-life partner Jemima Kirke, is a stark, visual representation of that humanity, most evident in how Kirke illustrates the crashes of using and withdrawal through scenes of two lovers in a pharmacy looking for ointment to soothe a reddening itch of junkie rash. The record holds that textbook Alex Cameron humor (“Why’d I get this huge satellite/Just to use three websites” and “Give me a sign and let me know what to believe in/Or I might just post something”), but now, more than ever, Cameron reaches outwards for delicacy (“Our sweet parents love us ‘cause they don’t see/The bags around our eyes and the bruises on our thighs/No one knows you’re hurting/‘Til you start to cry”) and betterment (“Tryna prove to you that I’m stable/I promise when I fall I’ll be graceful”) as he navigates a landscape of unlikely survival.

When Nico Walker, author of the New York Times Best-Selling novel Cherry, wrote the foreword for the record, it made sense, given how Cherry is an ugly, semi-autobiographical novel about a war veteran robbing banks in Cleveland, Ohio, for drug money. “There are multitudes of irony within him. And then at times he is in earnest. Other times he is ironic in earnest,” Walker says of the songwriter. “Cameron is a paradox of paradoxes. Stylish paradoxes. Sincere paradoxes. Defiant paradoxes. It seems the only thing that he is not is the type of lyricist that hasn’t put the work in. He is a first-rate lyricist. A poet. Which is all to say, he will be misunderstood.”

Cameron’s curiosity about Earth’s underbellies often gets misconstrued as personal views, because it is just human nature to believe that the lives created for the narratives of pop songs exist beyond lyric sheets. But he doesn’t get caught up in how others perceive him, only his characters do. When he sings “It’s no way to find your soul/Fingers down your pie hole” at the genesis of the title track, while his protagonist cooks a “codeine ragù” and boasts about the riches of aftermarket fentanyl, you might think he’s romanticizing an addict’s routine—but even the most unfixable characters in Cameron’s repertoire understand that there’s no business like show business, and, when the cameras are rolling, even the K holes and the breakdowns become cinematic.

Yet, there is nothing saturated or sensationalized in Oxy Music’s gentle and damning world, no chromatic filter over the lens or suspension of certain realities. It’s Cameron’s most hopeful project, despite the pressure of online overstimulation pushing against a love that taunts the face of death. It’s identical to his other records, in that these songs don’t ask you to conjure empathy for their protagonists, but, instead, demand you at least hear them out. And for every personal revelation let go (“They’re telling me to hold the line/Yeah, but these lines have got a hold on me”), an Alex Cameron quip appears from the woodwork to balance it out (“Check out my transition lenses girl/They show you how this boy is feeling”). Since Cameron’s last full-length LP, nearly everyone has had the worst two years of their life. On Miami Memory, there was a lingering, foreboding sense of acute loneliness, as if the album’s protagonist and his lover were afraid of being the only people left in the world. And when Oxy Music, whether intentionally or not, returns to that place, the two imperfect and dying people there, together-yet-alone, are making sense of life’s most-finite misgivings, and trying their hardest to, finally, let go of the smack that’s turned the next dawn distant.

Cameron spoke to Under the Radar from Los Angeles about how he plans to translate the songs from Oxy Music into an on-stage wardrobe, how he befriended a former Ohio bank robber and NY Times best-selling author, and why survival always balances out shame, sorrow, and pain.

Alex Cameron: Matt.

Matt Mitchell (Under the Radar): Alex.

How are you, mate?

I’m good, how are you?

Good, thank you. Where are you at the moment?

I’m in Ohio, the beautiful Midwest.

Ah, damn. Jea-LOUS. Envious.

I don’t know, I’m pretty envious of LA right now. How is California?

It is really nice right now. I haven’t been here for a couple of years. I like to be here, you know? I’ve got work to do, the sun is nice. I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t have something to do. It’s good to be busy in LA.

How have you been since Oxy Music was announced?

I’m really good. It’s hard to exist in a perpetual state of uncertainty, even when it comes to things like work, but that’s how everyone’s been living. No one knows exactly what’s going on, and all of those bad things are gonna become normal. We’re kind of waiting for someone to step up. It would take someone with great foresight and great resources and great wisdom to really lead anybody through this mess. And I think, I don’t know, I’m feeling generous. I want to help people, I want to boost morale. I want my friends to succeed. I’m not feeling angry or spiteful or resentful. I just, I want goodness.

I think, given the circumstances, that’s a pretty solid way to be, yeah?

Yeah, I just don’t feel like spending my time on creating unnecessary conflict. I see beautiful things. I see talent and I see love and great wisdom in people and I want that to be celebrated.

I was reading the album bio before calling you and Nico Walker, he’s from my neck of the woods in Ohio, and I remember the buzz around Cherry when it dropped in 2018. That book is quite similar, at least thematically, in a skeletal sense, to Oxy Music. How did you two meet?

Well, I just am a fan of his writing and I sent him the record. He listened to it and wrote back and was slowly getting to understand the music and, for whatever reason, he connected with it. We became pals, started writing to each other and spending time with each other. When he’d come to New York, he’d stop by. We get along, you know? I’m seeing him tomorrow, here in LA. We just have a similar… I don’t know, he says something and I laugh and I get it, and I want to be able to make him laugh. You know, whether or not we are similar people, that’s not for me to say, but, for whatever reason, the alchemy is a good one.

Effectively, Oxy Music is a pandemic record. But, aside from the vaccine line in “Sara Jo,” a listener would never know that, even though the scenes you’re writing about are very much products of what the pandemic has done to folks on the streets, despite the disparities having existed long before this global crisis. How did you arrive at the decision to make an NYC pandemic album that isn’t saturated with COVID imagery, but, instead, is a story that feels timeless, resonates with folks all across the globe, and isn’t truly bound to any specific place?

I don’t know shit about the pandemic. I don’t know a damn thing about science and medicine. That experience is so broad. Everyone is experiencing that. Broad things don’t necessarily interest me. I’m more interested in specific philosophy. I certainly don’t have an interest in writing songs that reach and attempt to connect with everyone. I want people to connect with my songs, I don’t want my songs to connect with people.

I think that’s how I arrived at your music as well. I found it, but it didn’t necessarily go looking for me.

I’m trying to get better at sculpting songs that require attention. Once a listener engages, hopefully they fall in love with it. I’m not interested in someone who doesn’t connect with my music.

On Forced Witness, “True Lies” was one of your first instances where you explored the dark parts of the internet. “Best Life” starts to gnaw at that same online fallibility, but under the guise of social media toxicity instead of catfishing on porn sites. What’s your relationship with social media, especially as a performer?

I think, on a good day, at my best, I’ll see it as a chance to tell a story, even if it’s a small one. And on my worst day, I’ll view it as a pain in the ass. I’m just trying to have more best days than worst days, because negativity has never been very inspiring for me. I’m much more interested in good feelings than bad ones, when it comes to work and writing. I’d like to be really good on the internet, but I think I’m at my best when there is a touch of cynicism there or a little bit of skepticism. There’s got to be a little touch of that self-awareness. I’m not really good at understanding systems and I’m not good at delivering an answer to a question. In terms of knowing the right move for that system, I’m not good at going for my role. I don’t really think about things like that, anyway. Social media is very fast, it’s very instant gratification. I’m more of a slow burn guy, moving in slow motion.

And you did a Patreon subscription service for your fans during the pandemic.

That was amazing, yeah, it really helped. It was amazing that people came to the party. It wasn’t, like, astonishingly good content. It was just a little insight into our ways that we operate. I got friends involved and had conversations and recorded them. We would put up and explain our photos from the tour there. Roy [Molloy] would do his thing. I think that most people were there [giving us] a nod to keep going. “We’ll help you get there.” It really helped. It helped us rent the studio and it helped us make the record. That was something very special. We were lucky.

I imagine it was a mutual thing, where your fans were able to see a bit more into the behind-the-scenes part and, on your end, you were able to connect with them in ways you couldn’t while on tour.

I think so. You know, in a perfect world, I could just be a songwriter and that would be enough. But there are other parts of the job that need to be done. And I like to find a way to connect with those things. To do them distantly and half-assed, and in a way that isn’t to my full ability, it never works out for me. I need to commit to something.

At what point did you realize you wanted to write from the perspectives of people other than yourself?

I have always wanted to write fiction. I suppose I’ve always learned more about life from fiction. That’s how I do my learning, by reading and writing fiction. [It’s] just how I am.

The depth you achieved on Miami Memory, especially the vulnerable parts, followed you on Oxy Music, especially on “Breakdown” and “Hold the Line,” when you sing about mental illness and the physical appearances of addiction. How do you tap into that space where you’re able to make strangers feel so dynamic?

I look at it like I’m less creating a song than I am discovering one. Think about it, in terms of a formula: every combination of words, every sentence and every melody, are all part of a system and a grid—so every combination potentially exists out there. I’m just trying to stumble upon good combinations of words and melodies. I’m not under the impression that I’m making something. I’m more finding it. That’s my perspective, and to find something and discover it is so joyful. I really don’t like the word “creative” or, like, “I’m a creator.” It just seems like so much unneeded pressure. I’m much more of an explorer.

I think that, to be a writer, you have to be an explorer and you have to have a curiosity about a lot of things.

Right. People talk about writer’s block and I’m like, “Don’t give yourself so much credit.”

When I was in college, I had a professor who said that writer’s block doesn’t exist, that it’s not a real thing, and I’ve long believed her.

Who do you think you are, that you’re some magic person that, for some reason, lost their special power? There’s magic, don’t get me wrong. There’s magic, it’s real, but take yourself off the pedestal for a second and think about things properly, you know?

Did lockdown have any affect on your creative partnership with Roy?

No, I don’t think so. We didn’t get to see a lot of each other for that first year. We were just being very responsible for a year-and-a-half until we got vaccinated and were able to get consistently tested to make sure we were okay. We’ve known each other since we were five years old, so a couple of years off doesn’t really mean anything to us.

Can you speak a bit about crossing paths with Lloyd Vines in an NYC bodega?

We were just in a bodega. I was getting a Gatorade, and so was he, and we just started talking, shook hands, and he said he was new to the neighborhood, said he was a musician. So, naturally, I was like, “Hey, come to the studio.” I played “Cancel Culture” and he just got it straight away. He knew it, you know, and had his own experience working with some oblivious—not his words, my words—stupid white people. He just understood it straight away, the oblivious nature of white culture and how it takes what it wants and takes the meat off the bone and leaves that big carcass to rot. It’s very, very distinct. [Lloyd] is the voice of reason, even though he sounds like the antagonist. It’s that sort of false, unwitting voice of the victim, the white victim, the Western victim, the voice of Western culture that’s like, “You know, I’m just a person, I don’t really know what I’m doing. Don’t blame me.” When, really, we’re talking about something that isn’t necessarily to do with individuals, it’s more to do with a massive group of people, a society and how it devours elements of ethnic cultures.

The way you perform has always been theatrical. What’s your plan for approaching Oxy Music at shows this year?

I think about it a lot, the style of performance. I definitely want to be very energetic. I think it needs to involve quite a lot of movement. I think about the costumes and the clothing choices. I don’t know, it’s a very raw, sort of, full-frontal record. So, now I carry on thinking about how much skin I want to show. I think that’s important. How bare do I need to be in order to properly communicate these songs? I’m thinking about, maybe not so much what I’m wearing, but more about what I’m not wearing. I have an interesting body. It’s an odd shaped thing, and I want to get better at playing with that. I’m thinking about how to use light on my skin or how to make my form and my shape carry some significance when someone’s looking at it.

The area of Ohio I grew up in, much like so many parts of America, has had an ongoing opioid epidemic for years. There’s a distinct hostility towards those who are suffering, too. I think the narrative that gets lost so often is one of humanity, of how, even through addiction, these people the public conceive as addicts are still human beings enduring the same emotions as everyone else, going through love and loss and trying to navigate the tendrils of a global catastrophe. I think you display that balance, the romanticism and the heartbreak on top of a degenerative thing, very well on the album, and especially in the “Best Life” video with Jemima [Kirke]. When you were writing about these songs, about addicts filling the streets of NYC during quarantine, was that something visible in strangers or something you’ve culled from your own experience?

I’d say it’s a neat mixture, you know. I’d say there’s multiple elements, in terms of my own personal experience with the drug. My goodness, it’s palpable and we really convince ourselves that if it doesn’t affect us that it’s not there. But it’s so ridiculous, how easy it is and how prominent these are drugs to find. To start a habit, it’s not an easy thing. You’re starting a drug habit with a drug you don’t even know you’re taking. Chances are, it’s fentanyl. You think you’re taking heroin, or an oxy pill, but the chances are you’ve taken fentanyl. I don’t know, I think that people are so scared of their friends and loved ones dying that it stirs up an anger and a rage. And nothing makes a junkie want to do heroin more than someone yelling at them and accusing them of something. So, yeah, that’s kind of an interesting crossroad for me, the anger that comes from love when a family finds out that someone is using hard street drugs, and the fear that comes from love, of being found out and discovered. When those two things intersect, you get this really dramatic conflict between loved ones. And that’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about when writing this record, is how to communicate the story and the mind of someone who has developed a habit with hard drug use, opioids specifically, and how to communicate the pain and sorrow and the shame and the life in that, because it’s so heavy and so easy to die doing those drugs. But there is life in there, and the fight for survival is very real.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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