“We’re actually doing a whole new set,” says Architecture in Helsinki singer Cameron Bird from San Francisco, a week before his band begins its fall tour. “We’re doing twelve new songs. We’re playing three old songs, I think. We haven’t actually played any of them yet, so I’m totally freaking out.” Bird doesn’t sound freaked out, though, his declaration rolling out in the same easy Australian accent with which he talks about the band Talking Heads or the old television show “Freaks and Geeks.”
Maybe that’s the kind of nonchalant attitude that comes from being in a band as idiosyncratic as Architecture in Helsinki, a Melbourne six-piece that calls to mind Belle and Sebastian covering the Jackson Five (or perhaps the other way around). Their 2005 sophomore effort, “In Case We Die,” was released among much critical adulation, but it might have been hard for Bird to hear for all the noise they were making – the liner notes list no fewer than 41 instruments on the album, and Bird can’t really say how many people played on it.
“We did a couple things where, like, we just did like a group e-mail to all our friends one afternoon and were like, ‘Whoever wants to come to the studio and do some singing or play some percussion or whatever,’ and like forty people turned up,” he explains. “So we had this huge massive jam, which we recorded. Hopefully we’ll release it one day. It was kind of cool, it was some kind of weird, fucked up psychedelic drama class, where you would say a word and everyone would have to interpret it with their instrument.”
It is this sense of adventure that makes Architecture so interesting. At any given point on the record, approximately a million different things are happening, with genres elbowing each other out of the way for attention. This embrace of heterogeneity gives the songs the feel of musical collages, with the only constant being a general sense of exuberance. Peel beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find a bit of darkness below the shouted choruses, horns and drum fills. I mean, it is called “In Case We Die.”
“We were recording, and I was walking home at like five in the morning and I was just tired, and I almost got hit by a car, and I had this freak-out,” Bird relates. “It was just like walking out into the road, and I had my headphones on, listening to what we had just recorded, and I was like ‘Holy shit.'”
Band drama doesn’t end there, though. The sextet was until recently an octet (“It kind of got to the point where there would always be one or two or three people who were like. ‘God, what am I going to do in this song? Do I just like clap my hands?'”), and Bird now lives in New York, while the rest of the band remains in Melbourne. Unsurprisingly, though, they’ve discovered a creative way to get over such simple difficulties.
“We’ve been doing all our writing via e-mail, or by Instant Messenger,” Bird says, not without a little amazement. “It’s been to the point where we’ll be trying to write a drum beat or whatever, and James will get behind the drums, and we’ll do audio chat on Instant Messenger, and he’ll play a beat to me, and I’ll be like, ‘No, I reckon you should do blah blah blah.’ So we’ve basically written the entire next record via e-mail.”
Such freestyling is not exactly novel to Bird, who never really learned how to play other people’s songs on guitar, but rather began to immediately write his own. “I still can’t play other people’s songs,” he laughs. “I’m just so hopeless. When we write songs, I just learn what I have to learn, and that’s it, you know.” What he lacks in technical proficiency, though, he makes up for with intuition and sense of place – each chord is there for a reason, to serve the song, not some misplaced sense of musicianship. “More than wanting to learn the actual craft and technique of playing it as an instrument, I wanted to use it more as a means of expression, I guess, so that felt like an obvious thing for me to do, straight off. I just naturally wanted to write songs, I guess,” he says.
“We’re so new to playing music, that every time we set out to record or write songs, we just have so many ideas that we want to just keep doing,” Bird says, and this attitude informs the entire spirit of the band. Screw dogma, throw everything you have against the wall, forget that maybe African drums and twee pop don’t usually mix, and hope for (and end up getting) the best. It’s an aesthetic of aural egalitarianism, an exercise in pop music pluralism, and one senses that there’s not much that doesn’t fly off wonderfully. As such, it’s hard to believe Bird when he says he’s freaked out, but it’s harder to hold it against him when his tunes won’t leave your brain.
Architecture in Helsinki will play Black Cat at 8:30 on Monday with openers the Blow.