Following the first wave of headline announcements, Tramlines organisers gave the London press a taste of what this year’s event has in store at an intimate London launch. I sat down with Tramlines Festival Director Sarah Nulty and Head of Programming Kate Hewett to talk identity, integrity and diversity.
Since its launch eight years ago, Sheffield’s Tramlines festival has not only grown in it’s reputation for having some of the best new and emerging talent on display but in vastly increasing audience numbers as well. Last year, Tramlines saw crowds of over 100,000. The secret is out, and raving crews from across the country are turning up in their numbers to get a taste of what the Steel City is all about.
Having thrown out the likes of the Arctic Monkeys and Toddla T in recent years, Sheffield has long been a breeding ground for independent business and creativity. “Sheffield is an interesting one, because it’s always been sort of wilfully contrarian. It’s always been the kind of city that’s just ‘yeah we’re not those guys’”. Head of Programming, Hewett is relaxed as we talk before the evening gets fully under way; measured in her response she continues to speak on Tramlines’ consistently eclectic roster, “it’s almost to a fault. So much of the Tramlines programming reflects our music taste, it’s the stuff we’re actually listening to – and kind of always has been”.
The balancing act of integrity and commercial appeal is something every business faces as it aims to grow, so I ask how both Hewitt and Festival Director Sarah Nulty intend to maintain the identity of the festival – attracting big name headliners and big crowds. Hewett goes first, “To be honest, I think the way people enjoy music nowadays, and the democracy of the internet means people’s tastes are a lot more diverse – you might well have a record collection that includes some artists that would be considered to be more commercial; and you can still enjoy things that are directly from the underground“.
Nulty expands the point, “also the venues that are involved. As much as we lead on it they still curate their own venues. It represents what they do and what they’re doing every week, we’ve got so many iconic venues in Sheffield as well. Great warehouse spaces like The Night Kitchen, which is down near the Yellow Arches and Hope Works. I think there are more and more temporary spaces being taken over by promoters all the time”. Sitting with both women it’s easy to grasp an insight into the workings of their success, there is a calm confidence and obvious passion, answers come freely and without feeling contrived; usually with one taking the lead from the other, developing each point.
Tramlines has long played host to a range of talent from Public Enemy and Sister Sledge to The Cribs and Echo and the Bunnymen; they consistently showcase range and diversity. This year’s event will see a nine piece band take to the main stage. KOG & the Zongo Brigade are an ensemble with a difference, we were treated to a enticing sample by four of the nine members.
A preview of their talent, the musical choices shifted effortlessly from African HipLife to Carnival Hip-Hop. With only four members in attendance, they were able to get a room full of usually uninterested ‘media types’ into a swing, and weather permitting, they will have the main stage in full swing too. Obviously adept musicians, the band’s front man was charming, engaging and a decent vocalist; they embody the kind of escapist freedom from the norm a great inner city festival will give its audience.
So how does it all come together? With multiple venues to hand, each with its own promoter, it could surely become a case of too many cooks? Nulty explains, “The thing about the Sheffield scene is that it’s a really tight knit community, our backgrounds before this were in promoting and running live music at venues, so we already knew all these guys and we just continued to work with them as the festival grew. And as new promoters come up, you get to know them, and yeah, that’s kind of the key to the festival. Especially with the dance music stuff as well – you need those young promoters coming in that kind of know who the next artist is. We work with the right promoters in the different scenes, probably about 10 – all representing different tribes of music so to speak. I think that’s what keeps it relevant and current”.
Hewett then expands on this idea, “it’s about programming the right music into the right space I think as well. The geography and layout of Sheffield plays such a part, and that’s the great thing about programming or running events in the North – there are loads of these great places like Sarah was talking about. Loads of old industrial spaces that are now, you know, disused in their original form; but have now been reclaimed and re appropriated – given a new lease of life”.
But Tramlines isn’t a magical socialist utopia where all the bands play the steel drums or tambourine, there’s a definite shift that occurs, from the lively, family friendly vibes of a group like KOG & the Zongo Brigade to the edgier offerings of another of the artists to give us a preview. MC Coco, already a Sheffield veteran, he’s featured on Grime music essential GRM Daily, and his new track, entitled “Big Bou Yah” is produced by none other than Sheffield Hero Toddla T, who continues to be a part of, and do his bit for, the scene that threw him to greatness.
Coco has videos on the major ‘urban’ staples like SBTV, as well as having support from both Mistajam and DJ Target and a ‘Fire in the Booth’ on Charlie Sloth’s show on BBC 1Xtra, he’s already made all the right moves on his road to wider recognition having been around longer than a minute. With a delivery that plays to his Yorkshire accent, he’s another artist ready to stake his claim on a scene that all too often revolves around London.
Tramlines, and its various underground venues, whether it’s The Night Kitchen, Hope Works or Yellow Arches, rather than a room full of bewildered ‘media types’ in a Shoreditch pub on a Tuesday night will no doubt understand his ‘big and serious’ fast flow and a remix that is arguably better than the original “Big Bou Yah” is bound to go off when Tramline finally rolls around.
Last up we were treated to a dab of House, South London’s own FYI Chris were on hand to bring this preview to a close. A pair of willing servants to the genre, both Chris Watson and Chris Coupe have been staples of the better known record shops in Peckham – Rye Wax – maybe best known so far for their 2014 hit “No Hurry”, the pair have rapidly been picking up momentum since then, making the inevitable transition from little known producers to upfront DJ’s.
The final dimension in the preview of what is to come, “This is the first year we’ve introduced ticketing options that let people choose what to buy based on the kind of music they’re most interested in. They can buy for the day time if they want to come out to the main stages for a family friendly thing; or if they’re interested in checking out new bands or even if they just come out at night. There’s that choice”. Hewett wraps up our time with a final thought before Nulty adds, “We like going out all night, just not necessarily to the same places people who are 18 would choose and Tramlines has those options, it’s great for that”.
Buy your tickets for Tramlines Festival 2016 here.
Words by Akua Ofei