On the eve of a new album and national tour, Architecture in Helsinki bandleader Cameron Bird has his sights set on more than just making music. By Nic Price.

Pop band Architecture in Helsinki build their brand

Architecture in Helsinki members (from left) Cameron Bird, Gus Franklin, Jamie Mildren, Kellie Sutherland and Sam Perry.

Cameron Bird is in full flight. He’s walking through empty Melbourne streets, talking about how to restart the music sales business. He doesn’t talk rapidly, but his brain moves fast.

“We want to find new ways of bringing music into the world, bring some life and vitality back into music retail,” says the farmer’s son and Architecture in Helsinki bandleader. “The identity of the album and the artist can be so much more than just the music.”

It’s seven weeks out from a national tour to launch their new album NOW + 4EVA, and the band still have no idea how to play half the songs live. But Bird has other things on his mind: he’s making a band shop.

The NOW + 4EVA concept store will open in a shopping centre, in a space sculpted from layered PVC piping. It will stock jewellery, drink bottles, rock candy figurines of the five band members, a small fashion range, cover art prints, and the new album on vinyl, USB, cassette and CD. The products were commissioned by Bird in small runs from local designers – many of whom are friends of the band – and share the vivid blue, orange, yellow and pink colour scheme of the album cover. For at least part of the time, Bird is planning to staff the store himself.

“Identity is the sum of so many parts and it’s fun curating them,” he says. “I just love the creative process and collaboration. In a weird way, the shop is like making the album all over again.”

1 . Having fun

I meet Bird on a street corner in Fitzroy. He’s told me over the phone I’ll be able to spot his blue shoes. He’s also wearing grey tracksuit pants and vest, fluorescent orange T-shirt, black floppy hat and circular yellow sunglasses. Two weeks ago he welcomed his first son, but that doesn’t seem to have diminished his energy levels.

He climbs the stairs of an old industrial building to call on designer Dale Hardiman. The concept store was born when Bird spied Hardiman’s playful jewellery a few months earlier and was reminded of the album cover art. He contacted Hardiman and when they hit it off, Bird conceived the shop. 

Here in Hardiman’s workspace, the pair talk sizes and quantities for half an hour before Bird heads for a nearby design studio to discuss the shop itself.

His friends Amelia Borg and Timothy Moore are designing a four-metre-by-four-metre space with a spherical hollow at its centre and a white pebble floor. Borg brings the design up on her laptop and apologises that she’s had too much coffee. “I read something about Dolce & Gabbana recently,” Bird says. “They each used to drink nine to 14 coffees a day.” 

He rattles off specifications for products, reaching for his phone to show photos. “I like the idea that the album is on a pedestal, like it’s the reason that all this other stuff exists.” He speaks authoritatively, as though he has chains of shops around the country. He’s having fun.

2 . 'Never sit still'

We’re on the streets again, corner pubs filling with the after-work crowd. “These days you’ve got to put your finger in as many pies as possible,” Bird muses. “A friend told me, ‘You’ve got to diversify’. I like that idea. You’ve got to keep changing, keep your mind alert. Never sit still.”

If one thing defines the band, it’s the never-sit-still ethos. Over 14 years and through various line-ups, the band has re-formed its sound on five albums.

When the band formed, Bird was studying photography at RMIT art school in Melbourne. Guitarist Jamie Mildren and bassist Sam Perry had played with him in a high school band in Albury. Kellie Sutherland joined to play clarinet and sing and James Cecil was added on drums. Horn players Gus Franklin, Isobel Knowles and Tara Shackell made it eight. Bird could barely play an instrument at the time: he learned on his girlfriend’s guitar, writing songs as he tried to impress her while she was at work. These sketches later formed the band’s debut album, Fingers Crossed.

Franklin recalls going to early gigs, before joining the band. “They always would change styles, every time you would see a show it would be new songs, new vibes. Sometimes they would play a show a week. I was like, ‘How the fuck do these guys keep writing good songs every week?’”

Fingers Crossed and its follow-up, In Case We Die, were twee guitar pop sideswiped by reckless invention and naivety. Songwriting conventions ended up trampled underneath 16 feet rushing to grab a tuba, clarinet, glockenspiel, clap their hands, clatter percussion or form impromptu choirs. In Case We Die garnered the band fans at home and in the US. 

Things were going nicely, so Bird shook it up. Knowles and Shackell departed in 2006 – shifting the line-up from enormous to simply large – and Bird moved to New York. He sublet an apartment, went to gigs, wandered the streets and feverishly wrote songs through a steamy summer. Taking advantage of the different time zones, Bird sent files back to bandmates in Australia. They would work on them, then bounce them back to Bird by the time he woke up next morning. 

The resulting album, Places Like This, included the band’s highest-charting single, “Heart It Races” – a dreamy psychedelic tower rising above bird sounds, steel drums, tribal percussion and chanting. It sounded like a rainforest coming to life in the heart of the city rush. 

But New York scrambled Bird. “New York had so much energy and vibe, and people were really infectious, excitable and proud. But I found it really wore me down,” he says. “That energy is in the music and in the songs. I don’t look back at it as a happy period, I look back at it as confused. I hate that record, I don’t listen to it.”

After touring the album, Bird moved back to Melbourne, reconnected with friends, indulged his love of cooking and restaurants, and started going to the footy. The band’s sound hook turned to highly produced pop and their fourth album, 2011’s Moment Bends, proved to be their most successful in Australia, peaking at
No. 12. But it fizzled in the US.

If art is the result of internal conflicts, Bird would appear to have less to work with this time around. Happily settled in Melbourne, Bird and Sutherland became a couple five years ago and welcomed baby Ralph in February. 

Drugs and drink have never been a factor. After his negative experience with Places Like This, Bird swore off booze. What started as a short-term challenge lasted five years, until late 2013. “I just found I had so much more clarity and vastness in my ideas. More creative energy. I like seeing how you can change your mind with diet or exercise.” Not one to beat around the bush, Bird rejoined the drinking ranks with a single malt whisky.

3 . Work ethic

Early in 2012, the band came together to write the new album, NOW + 4EVA, following the pop trajectory of Moment Bends. Pop, replete with high-energy, perky melodies and fickle tastes, would appear to be a young person’s game. The band, edging towards their mid-30s, had their work cut out. Bird knew it: “You only get one chance in this industry.”

They hired a large space in the centre of Melbourne, a former junkie squat above a fashionable café, to set up their equipment during the year-long writing process. Careful consideration was given to how to create the right atmosphere. The walls were decked with art; a reading corner was installed with books on music and science; a table tennis table was brought in. There was a wide selection of teas and a coffee machine. At times, in keeping with the New-Age streak that runs through the band, smudge sticks were burned. Franklin says they had to work to overcome the negative energy left in the space from its previous life.

Bird would begin each day with a run or gym session, then shower, put on a studio outfit and work from 8am until 8pm. Above the café, he would experiment with instruments or listen back to ideas sung into his phone. Later in the morning, other band members would arrive and give feedback on what he was working on. Bird, however, exerted the strongest force on the gestating songs. 

“The band probably works because Cameron pushes it through,” says Franklin. “He’s very strong willed and strong minded about getting it done.”

Some of the creative process was brute repetition. The band would find a beat or sound or melody they liked and loop it for an hour or two, throwing constant variations to see what worked. At other times they would play part of a song then stop, to feel where the energy should go. 

Bird believes that good songs arrive as a result of hard work, but can never be forced. Six months’ toil might only yield two keepers; the best songs are often conceived in 10 minutes. He lived a hermit-like existence during the writing process, losing touch with many friends. “You go into this world,” he says. “For me, to make the best music you can you have to be completely focused and obsessed.”

4 . 'Songs just appear'

Whenever Bird receives a text message, his phone celebrates with a Prince guitar stab. In the corner of a beer garden, he’s telling me how the band journeyed through rule-bending indie and ended up chasing the perfect pop song.

His sandy eyebrows bounce as he talks and he’s missing a tooth from a bicycle accident.

“I’m very much a populist – I like songs I can play to my grandmother. We try to make music that people can really relate to, but will take them somewhere else. It’s harder to write a good pop song than the stuff we used to write.” 

Pop music is also a homecoming for the band. All members, bar Sutherland, grew up in regional Australia, soaking up the fare of commercial radio stations. Bird’s family farm was 30 kilometres from the nearest town, and he credits it with forcing him to develop his imagination. He’d like to bring Ralph up in the country but Sutherland is not having it. “I don’t know if I’m being overly sentimental,” he wonders, “but I think it’s good for a child’s values and attention span …”

I mention that seems incongruous, given large portions of Architecture in Helsinki’s back catalogue present like soundscapes of short-attention computer-age cities. “That’s because they were written there,” he says. “If we were living in the country it would have sounded very different. You’re just a conduit for your surroundings.”

When asked why he creates, he’s mildly stumped. It’s not something he’s considered. Why, then, the constant reach for new possibilities? “Maybe it’s because – and I’m going to sound like a pompous arsehole – we’re not musicians, we’re artists. I don’t know how to do the same song again, I don’t think about the theory or chords behind it. Songs just appear and I grab them.”

Bird repeatedly makes the point that he’s not a proper musician. He’s also not a proper shopkeeper, but he keeps grabbing ideas where they arise, pulling people together, seeing where it leads. 

“I don’t even know what Architecture in Helsinki will be in five years. It might be a chain of restaurants,” he says. “I like that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "Pop shop".

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Nic Price is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer.