"I like the idea of streetcars." It's not exactly a surprising thing to hear Milan Schramek say. He is, after all, a student in downtown Toronto; one of those artsy, left-wing, pinko "elites" Rob Ford and his supporters are always on about. And as the new mayor moves to kill Transit City and abandon above-ground rail in favour of more buses and subways, streetcars have become a particularly emotional issue. Schramek, however, has more reason to love them than most: he has spent the last few months putting together the Toronto Streetcar Sessions, a series of mobile concerts held on the iconic TTC vehicles late last year, recorded in HD and now being released online as a series of videos and free live EPs
Inspired, in part, by London's Black Cab Sessions, Schramek wanted to organize shows in a non-traditional venue which would be uniquely Torontonian. Streetcars leapt to mind. "Anybody who's from Toronto knows exactly what a streetcar sounds like coming down the street," he says. "You can really identify that as a Toronto sound." And it's not just the screech of rail on wheel, either. Riders are awash in a sea of very particular noises: automated stop announcements, the clang of the driver's bell, the hum of traffic and chatter of fellow passengers.
Mixing that aural environment with music came naturally to Schramek, who is a musician himself, has spent time working for local indie music mag, SoundProof, and recently began an internship with wizardly mastering engineer Noah Mintz (Broken Social Scene, Stars, The Dears). "One of the really cool things that I think we captured in our sessions," he cites as an example, "is that throughout all of the sessions, the announcements are playing of what stops are next. Your hear that in the background of the audio recordings. And I always really liked that—even before we did this. I always listen to music on the streetcar... and that always had an effect on me. I always thought [the announcements mixing with music] was really interesting."
The result is a series of videos and MP3s deeply connected to the city where they were recorded and the circumstances of their recording. While familiar neighbourhoods pass by outside the windows, songs by the six local bands Schramek recruited are soaked in streetcar ambiance. During an instrumental break in Ivy Mairi's "Passing Cars" a passing car beeps its horn. Parks and Rec's "Get By" enjoys some added sonic texture from the metallic groan of the tracks; drummer Arnold Pereira uses a pole for percussion in "You Don't Have To Eat". And throughout each of the six sets, the bands' lyrics are intercut with the dispassionate female voice all TTC riders know so well: "Next stop, Bellwoods Avenue... Church Street.. Yonge Street, Queen subway station."
It's a snapshot of a moment in the city's history that may soon have passed. The streetcars now clattering through Toronto—two unique models built for the TTC and no other city in the world—were made in the late-'70s, with a 30-year lifespan. Their time is up; they need to either be rebuilt or scrapped. The Transit Commission's current plan is for a hundred of them to be rebuilt while new models replace the rest. That plan may change now that an anti-streetcar mayor reigns at City Hall. And whatever the fate of Transit City, the current fleet will soon begin to be phased out.
With a political fight looming, Schramek is very clear about where he stands. "I really hope that Transit City goes through. It would be a shame to just replace it all with buses," he says. "I've done some traveling in Europe and I always appreciated the trams they have there. There's just something about tram lines instead of buses. There's a nostalgia to them."
And if the streetcars' defenders fail? If the new mayor gets his way and the War On Cars gives way to a War On Streetcars? "At least we have this," Schramek says, "one last fuck you to Rob Ford."
Part Three: Ivy Mairi is here.
Below you can download the live EP from Donlands And Mortimer, the second band to play the Toronto Streetcar Sessions, along with videos and photos of their set. This is the second of a six part series. Last week, we posted Part One: The Grim Preachers. If you want to download all of the MP3s for all of the sessions right away, you can head straight to the Toronto Streetcar Sessions website.
Photos and text: Adam Bunch
Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. He's been on the Polaris Prize jury, lectured at Trampoline Hall and written for PopMatters, Crawdaddy!, 24 Hours and a whole bunch of other places. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.