Backstage at 2018’s Treasure Island Music Festival feels a little like an Aussie BBQ. As you walk into the artist area the doorway is decorated with festive-like bunting featuring the Australian flag. The transportables that house the various bands, including headliners Tame Impala, are situated around a casual area with a bar and tables; Australian accents are audible above the muffled sounds coming from the main stages. I walk right past Bones Sloan—the bassist who plays in Courtney Barnett’s band—before getting to Alex Cameron’s trailer. We’re here to speak to Cameron’s “business partner,” saxophonist Roy Molloy.
Earlier in the day, someone had asked me if “business partner” was code for “boyfriend.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I had to clarify that Cameron was in fact in a relationship with Girls actress Jemima Kirke. We catch a glimpse of the cozy couple as we wait outside their green room trailer for Molloy.
When Molloy finally pops around the corner, he apologizes for being late as he doesn’t have full coverage on his cell phone. We shake hands and proceed to the lounge area. Molloy is the nicest kind of indie rock star, a gentleman: he waits for me to sit before he takes his seat. He will also not diss a fellow musician—not even in jest, declines to give up insider secrets between Cameron and himself, and is the kind of guy who will jump in the surf and help save a drowning kid—a story that actually made network news.
Fans know that Molloy is a key part of the Alex Cameron experience. More than just a foil, he is yin to Cameron’s yang. They have just announced a new tour for 2019, touring without a band but as the Alex Cameron + Roy Molloy Duo.
When Kenny G made the saxophone the go-to for ubiquitous elevator music everywhere, he turned legions off the instrument. Recently, with the rise and crossover of contemporary jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington to hip hop and indie rock, its popularity has been on the rise again. We speak to Molloy about when he took up the saxophone, why he thinks it’s back in vogue and how he came to be Cameron’s business partner.
How did you become Alex Cameron’s business partner?
We’re old friends. We moved in next door to Alex when I was five. I think his mom made him come and play with me because he thought I was lonely or something. (laughs)
Were you lonely?
Nah, I just liked to play by myself. Anyway, business partners—we were working at a pizza shop together. We were about 24; we’d been friends all these years and we had always been in bands together. We’d always had little undertakings together. One day Alex brought in the demos for Jumping The Shark; I told him how good I thought they were and he said, “Let’s try and put a band together, and split it 50/50.” So off we went.
Why you? It’s not everyday that a songwriter teams up with a saxophone player. It’s usually a guitarist, bassist or drummer?
I think it’s because we’re really good friends. We’ve been close friends for years. There’s a lot of trust. Sometimes if you’re touring the world on a shoestring, it’s good to have someone to watch your back. I don’t know what was going through his head but if you look at the results, I’m sure he could have done it without me. But he’s done it with me. (smiles)
When did you pick up the saxophone and when did you decide that this was a viable career option for you?
(Laughs) I started playing the saxophone really young. They have a program in the state schools in Australia where you can rent an instrument quite cheap if you were a little kid. I can’t remember why I gravitated to the saxophone, I guess I was eight or nine. I played in the orchestra ‘til I was 12, then I went to a nicer school and they had like a Big Band and orchestra. When I left school, I could still play saxophone, but I picked up the bass; at that time Alex was a drummer and we played in a band together. It was 2006 and no one wanted to fuck with saxophones. (laughs) And fast forward how many years later, Alex and me were putting together a band. I took the saxophone into practice and it just sounded right – that was 2012.
Do you feel like there’s been a return of the sax?
Definitely! For sure. Ever since I’ve started playing it, everyone’s been very complimentary about it. And in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a lot more bands doing it which makes a lot of sense to me because it’s an instrument that sounds great.
Kamasi Washington has really taken it mainstream with his Kendrick Lamar collaboration as well as with indie artists such as St Vincent. Last night at Treasure Island, rapper ASAP Rocky had a saxophonist onstage with him too. Why do you think the sax is so popular again?
I don’t know but I’ve definitely noticed it too. It’s definitely an intimidating time to be a saxophonist because there’s so many good ones around.
Who do you see as competition?
Ah, I’m not going to go into that but I see them around and they’re slick! There are really a lot of good players out there right now.
What are the merits of having a real live saxophone-player as opposed to a programmed one on Ableton or something?
I’m not a highly-trained musician outside of orchestra, so I don’t know if I have the correct terminology for it but “Stranger’s Kiss” was actually like a computer or synth pad that sounded like a saxophone. I couldn’t figure out what they were playing on the synth so I just doubled it on the sax and that’s what creates that high and lonesome sound. In terms of a difference, I don’t actually know because it sounds great on the synth too. (laughs) I mean, I had a job fucking working on trains from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and had girlfriends fucking tread all over my heart and shit like that; there’s something in the way you play something, intonate it with your mouth, use your embouchure and breathing that’s almost impossible to imitate electronically.
Embouchure — you need a human touch for that. And don’t you just love the sound of the word, it’s so sonorous!
Yeah. It feels like caramel. Sonorous—I love the sound of that word too! You asked about when I realized it was a viable career change but I was initially working on the light rail in Sydney and I got laid off. (laughs) I thought my back-up career was viable and that fell through! But once I stopped doing that, thankfully my music career took off, then it became a full time gig and viable career option for me.
What’s the biggest misconception you think people have of saxophonists?
The saxophone does get conflated with a ton of other different images in popular culture: sometimes it gets tied to the jazz thing, which is cool for some people but not others. Some people think it’s too serious and it’s been meme-ed a little too much maybe. People may find that a little hilarious. I thought Lisa Simpson was cool; she played the saxophone. I also had a little sister who I thought was cool too, so when it came time to pick up an instrument the saxophone was cool to me.
I think in the ‘80s when Kenny G’s smooth jazz got so big and made the saxophone elevator music everywhere, we all got put off by it.
The ‘80s were a really cool time to be recording music. Technology was changing really quickly and in the studios, musicians and producers were experimenting with things like reverb and effects. But I can see why people got over it because it was full tilt.
It got bloated…
Yeah, I guess you got grunge as a reaction to that.
And I guess you’re right. People do conflate their instruments—like the difference between a trumpet and sax, one is a brass and the other a wind instrument. Not sure how many people know that.
I guess so. Even I mix it up sometimes. You know on the track “Spirit In The Sky,” it sounds like there’s a big baritone sax in there but I think it’s just an overtuned guitar. I get that shit wrong all the time.
Any fave saxophonists right now?
Sure, I really love the rock ‘n’ roll players – Bobby Keys is great. Some people really like Clarence Carter’ I like him too, but right now, I’m really digging Bobby Keys. He was totally mind-bendingly high making music with The Rolling Stones. Doing these ripping hot, low-key rock solos. I’ve been enjoying that a lot lately.
Have you been studying him a little bit?
Yeah, I’m always trying to rip someone off. (laughs)
I say studying, you say rip off.
So what’s the difference between all the saxophones, because there are a few?
I play the alto sax. That’s like your speaking voice. The tenor’s just a deeper register. The baritone sax follows after that and you can get these huge saxophones (puts his hand up and stretches them out to mime the size of it). And then there’s the soprano sax which I’m quite interested in. I am looking into buying one. The fingering is a little different on the soprano sax but I’ve done it before when I was in school. The keys and embouchure are the same for all. It’s just a bigger body and bell so its a bigger sound.
You’ve spent a lot of this year on the road. What’s been the best thing about being in the Alex Cameron band?
I think I would have to say having a band with us, the players that we’ve had. We’re coming to the end of the tour we’ve them. We’ve been on a road together for close to a year and we’ve played about 250 shows; they’re just naturally talented. We blew the bank to pay for them but it’s been worth it and so fun.
On stage earlier, Alex said that you wrote some of the lyrics for “Running Out Of Luck,” some of the “most disgusting but also sweet.” Is it the line about “we’re good in the backseat but we’re better up front?”
Nah, I can’t tell you that.
It’s nice to keep a little mystery. Keep the people guessing. (smiles)
Alex Cameron + Roy Mollo's 2019 tour dates:
01/25 – DC9 Nightclub, Washington – DC
01/26 – Motorco Music Hall – Durham, NC
01/27 – Terminal West – Atlanta, GA
01/29 – Gasa Gasa – New Orleans, LA
01/30 – White Oak Music Hall/Upstairs – Houston, TX
01/31 – The North Door – Austin, TX
02/01 – Club Dada – Dallas, TX
02/02 – Paper Tiger – San Antonio, TX
02/05 – The Rebel Lounge – Phoenix, AZ
02/06 – The Bunkhouse Saloon – Las Vegas, NV
02/07 – The Casbah – San Diego, CA
02/08 – Pico Union Project – Los Angeles, CA
02/09 – Pappy & Harriets – Pioneertown, CA
02/12 – The Independent – San Francisco, CA
02/14 – Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, OR
02/15 – WISE Hall – Vancouver, BC
02/16 – Barboza – Seattle, WA
02/20 – Lost Lake Lounge – Denver, CO
02/21 – Slowdown – Omaha, NE
02/22 – 7th Street Entry – Minneapolis, MN
02/23 – High Noon Saloon – Madison, WI
02/24 – Thalia Hall – Chicago, IL
02/26 – Horseshoe Tavern – Toronto, ON
02/27 – Théâtre Fairmount – Montreal, QC
03/01 – The Bell House – Brooklyn, NY
03/02 – Great Scott – Allston, MA