Who's saying what
The daily commute has always seemed a touch more civilised in Melbourne. It’s the people of course – more attractive than the Sydney competition, sweeter smelling than their Brisbane brethren – and partly the city itself: it helps when a lot of the places you might be getting off are actually pretty nice. Perhaps most of all, though, it’s the trams. Spacious, quiet and quick, they’re the Rolls Royce of Australia’s public transport system.
At least that’s the way Nicklas Wallberg and Carl Malmsten saw it when they were a couple of graduate communications students casting around for a not-for-profit project to sink their teeth into. “It was just about finding an appropriate concept,” Wallberg explains. “We toyed with a few different things before hitting upon this idea of matching bands with trams.”
Perhaps it’s simply another case of an outsider seeing things more clearly than the natives. Wallberg and Malmsten are a couple of Swedes who met in Australia whilst on study-exchange. They actually came up with Tram Sessions when relaxing at Malmsten’s parents’ villa during a three-week visit back home. “We were sitting around the kitchen table, thinking about it, and it just came to us relatively easily. But then the more we got into it, the more excited we got.”
The idea’s not totally original. Wallberg admits to being inspired by Black Cab Sessions in London, as well as the Take-Away Shows on La Blogothèque in Paris, both of which feature artists performing outside of their typical comfort zone of stages, meaty amplification and meatier security. But Tram Sessions is arguably the concept’s natural conclusion. “I think the acoustics are actually great on a tram to begin with,” Wallberg says, “which really surprised me in the beginning. But also, I think it gives the right amount of people, so you can get a bit of a crowd and atmosphere in there. And that’s the big difference with Tram Sessions compared to some of those other great projects: the interaction with people – these people who have no idea what’s going on.”
So Wallberg says, although you could argue the sessions aren’t quite the surprise they used to be. Starting off in true guerrilla style with a 2010 pilot that roped in a friend as performer, the duo soon had the approval of Yarra Trams. Since then, the run-and-gun tactics have stayed the same – get a band, take over a tram – but the profile of the performers has quickly grown. In the last six months Passenger, Lanie Lane, Ben Kweller, Georgia Fair and Amanda Palmer have all performed, and Wallberg doesn’t have to get around to commuters explaining their legitimacy quite so much anymore.
“I’d say 60-70 percent know about it,” he says. “It’s amazing. I go round, but now they know exactly what I’m talking about. That’s a great feeling. Because it’s a secret gig, not many people have actually experienced it on the tram, but they might have had a friend who’s been on it or they got sent a video. The connection is really starting to happen.”
Wallberg and Malmsten’s list of potential performers isn’t getting any shorter either. A push late last year to get the touring Foo Fighters onboard a tram may have fell just short of the line, but it generated massive exposure for the project. It used to be a case of Wallberg hustling his way around gigs throughout Melbourne, searching for willing subjects. Now, the bands come to him. The Tram Sessions spreadsheet has over 100 interested artists looking to get involved in the not-for-profit project. “I can’t even get to gigs now; I’m too busy sending emails,” Wallberg says.
But beyond the presentation and a simple idea that is so very “Melbourne”, Tram Sessions is about the Victorian capital in another, more specific way. Over the last five years, Melburnians have watched as an increasing number of inner city live music venues have closed their doors. Wallberg says that Tram Sessions is in part a response to that. “We actually hear it being talked about on the trams during the sessions,” he explains. “People now feel like they’re missing out on something, so for us to be able to provide this and also for people who don’t necessarily want to go to The Buffalo Club or East Brunswick or whatever; it’s for people who may have grown out of it or can’t really go to those late night gigs. It’s that joy of listening to and playing music, which gets lost sometimes, and it’s just beautiful to be able to bring that back.”
And there is of course the golden question: might there be any way of finding out the who, where and when of a performance? Wallberg refuses to be yorked: “Aha! We do tweet before the sessions saying that we will play on the tram somewhere in Melbourne – which makes it quite hard to figure out which one it is,” he says, laughing. “We’re going to keep it like that. However, we run competitions on Facebook and the like, and the winner of those competitions might present the band [for that particular session]. So we really want people to engage with it and experience it.”