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From Tram Driver To Conquering Musician

2 October 2015 | 6:47 pm | Anthony Carew

"When I moved to Helsinki from my hometown, I applied for all the jobs, and it was the only one that would have me."

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Jaakko Eino Kalevi is the most famous Finnish tram driver this side of the lead character of Aki Kaurismaki's Drifting Clouds. "A lot of people know that movie, but I don't think that's where this fascination people have with [me being a tram driver] comes from," smiles Kalevi. The 31-year-old songwriter and producer — whose groovy music is synth-driven, spaced-out, psychedelic, and sad - is speaking from Manchester, the morning after another show supporting Unknown Mortal Orchestra. With the recent release of his fifth album, a self-titled set issued on Domino-pimped imprint Weird World, Kalevi's music has taken him far and wide, including imminent tour dates in Australia. And, wherever he's travelled, so has the story of the job he's left behind: tram driver.

"When I moved to Helsinki from my hometown, I applied for all the jobs, and it was the only one that would have me," Kalevi laughs. "I guess it's kind of rare, and I think it's romantic to some people, driving a tram, in the same way that being a train driver seems kind of old-fashioned. But in Helsinki, trams are a big part of daily life."

Kalevi's hometown is tiny Tiituspohja, in Central Finland, the birthplace of his music-making. "I remember the exact moment when I decided to start to make music," Kalevi recounts. "It was 1994. I was 10. We were at my friend's place listening to Guns N' Roses and Aerosmith, and we decided to form a band where we would both play guitar. I didn't know how to play at all, at that point, but that was the moment I decided to learn."

Into his adolescence, an obsession with progressive metal granted him serious chops ("it feels like a good way to get better at guitar, because it's so challenging"), before a radical left-turn lead him to making hip hop beats, then experimenting with computers, sequencers, and synths. Kalevi moved to Helsinki in 2006 ("that's basically how it goes; all the young people from my hometown moved to Helsinki"), started playing regularly, and then issued his debut album, Dragonquest, in 2007. That kicked off a string of LPs — with 2010's Modern Life a minor 'breakout' - and an array of EPs and 12-inches.

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2013's Dreamzone EP, his first for Weird World, found Kalevi introduced to a wider audience. But, even still, he continues to sing songs in both English and Finnish, never catering musical ideas to a wider audience. "When lyrical ideas will come up, sometimes they're in Finnish, sometimes they're in English," he says. "And I just go with it, with whatever idea works. I know that, now, my audience is more international, and if I sing in Finnish, they're going to have no idea what I'm singing about."

Kalevi has been confronted with that fact plenty in 2015, where the confessed "studio person" has lived on the road, getting used to the grind of constant performing. "Even though I play the same songs — and, after this album, I've been playing them a lot - what I like is that it's never the same," says Kalevi. "It's the venue, it's the sound, it's the mix, it's my emotions as I'm playing, it's the crowd, it's their reaction to it; the feeling is always different. And, of course, some shows are better than others..."