“I think about my music all day, every day.”
Italian producer Lorenzo Senni is excited and talkative as we chat over Skype. He’s in Sweden, at Stockholm’s legendary EMS Elektronmusikstudion, trying to cram “five years into 10 days.” Senni has been given the opportunity to work with the studio’s vintage Buchla modular system, and has only a short time to not only learn how to use the gargantuan instrument but also to record material for his new piece entitled ‘AAT’ – Advanced Abstract Trance.
In the last few years, Senni has built up a solid reputation by deconstructing and re-contextualizing a genre that’s been the butt of jokes for far too long. By stripping away the fat from the well-worn trance framework and concentrating on just a few elements – the epic build-ups and gorgeous arpeggios, for a start – Senni managed to offer a fresh take on the perennially popular sound, and gathered more than a few followers in the process. His Mego debut Quantum Jelly was an unexpected collection of experiments that played with our nostalgia and challenged our musical prejudices, and its follow-up Superimpositions was even better, as Senni honed and developed his ideas still further, crafting the sketches into fully-formed landscapes.
He’s taken a break from the intense modular synth session to open up about his process, and to talk to me about what drives an artist who went from releasing records from noise demigod Florian Hecker on his own Presto!? imprint to stripping the percussion from ‘90s trance bangers.
How did you start making music?
I started as a guitarist. I started to play guitar, like everyone, going to lessons once a week. I was probably 11 or 12 when I started – I wanted to have a band, so you decide your role. You don’t know who’s the drummer or who’s the guitarist, you chose randomly back then. So I started to play guitar in punk and hardcore bands, and when I was 13, 14 my most significant experience was in a band from my home city Cesene. It’s very close to Rimini – Rimini is where Italo-disco is from.
It was significant because there was a scene, quite an important scene, of punk and hardcore bands, mostly straight-edge. I started to play with one of these bands [Out Of Bounds], they released records on Good Life [they were members of Sentence and Awaken Demons], a label from Belgium, and were touring. They were older than me – I’d just started playing some concerts as a tour guitarist, and was more often in the studio. I was the only one not into the straight-edge idea. For me, I can easily say that it was a fashion thing – rules on how to dress, rules on not drinking. I was not really into the ideal but was really into the music. So I was playing with this band but I already started to get a bit weird. My best friends, they were all gabber and hardcore warriors, because in Italy at that time it was quite popular, especially in my region.
“My friends were using a lot of drugs and were dressed like proper gabber warriors with motorcycle armor.”
Was this in the ’90s?
Yeah, around ’97, ’98. I was playing with this band and rehearsing with them, and then would come back to my best friends listening to gabber. I was hanging out with them during the weekend – they were using a lot of drugs and were dressed like proper gabber warriors with motorcycle armor. This was the beginning of being caught between two very different situations. I was also the weird one going out with them, when we went out we looked different – I was not officially listening to their music, but obviously I know all of that stuff, that’s why now I’m doing what I’m doing.
When I was around 17 I started to play drums and that was a big change in my life. It was a bit of a strange period for me anyway, not understanding anything about life, who I am, and I learned a lot of discipline thanks to my jazz teacher. Everyone was suggesting go to this guy, even if you want to play what you want. He was really important. I played drums until I was 23, and was studying a lot, five or six hours a day, always thinking “I have to study, I have to study”. This also saved my life.
At this point had you stopped playing punk/hardcore?
Yeah, there was not really a cut-off. I wanted to play different stuff, and there were no drummers available to play. I started listening to more experimental, more crazy music in the field of rock, Mogwai etc, all those bands that introduce you to a new sound but very smoothly. Then in my twenties I started a band [the now defunct Le Harmacy] with two twins, and was listening to noise like Black Dice – I remember Beaches and Canyons as a very important record.
I was playing drums but very free – technically I was good and I was studying a lot. We played around Italy and had a split with this band Talibam! [released in 2008 on MT5 tapes] then we played a couple of shows around Europe, but I was already thinking about Aphex Twin and early Alva Noto and Raster Noton, Mego and Ryoji Ikeda. I was very interested in this stuff. We split because there’s always someone who puts a lot of energy in, and someone else who’s just doing it because everyone else is doing it. I was putting a lot of energy in, so in the end we finished the band. I started to become more interested in software and what these people – Mego, computer music people – were using.
What kind of software were you using?
Max/MSP, and a couple of years later SuperCollider. Basically I was putting all the energy I had put into the drums into software, spending many hours working on it. No one was interested in this type of music – really, it was me in my bedroom.
Simon Scott [of Slowdive, who runs the Keshhhhhh label] was interested.
When he wrote to me – I was obviously a big fan of Slowdive – I was like “fucking hell.” It was through MySpace, he wrote to me on MySpace and he wanted to release this. He was saying “let’s do a CDR” but I wanted to have a real CD. So I said, “I’ll pay the difference between CDR and CD.” That’s why it’s a co-production between Presto!? and Kesh – it was because I wanted to have a real CD. That was Early Works, and it was funny because everyone in Italy said, “It’s a bit pretentious – Early Works already?” I was fighting with everyone, like it will be early works even in 10 years – it’s just objectively my early works. I always wanted to have fun with the name of the record though, because I was taking it very seriously. But all my influences – for example my biggest influence was all the Mego guys – these guys had a certain amount of irony to their presentation. They were like totally into what they were doing but just, you know, not too much drama.
Their work is quite self aware, certainly. Is this something you had in mind running Presto!?
Yeah, always. It’s not as if I’ve written down a statement, but I always keep this in mind. Even though I’ve been involved with some very good people, I keep this in mind. Keep an open door and fresh air passing by each release – not to be too closed in one genre, but to be open.
From 17 until I was 28, every summer I worked in this factory, a brutal job – lifting 25kg bags, just putting them on shelves all day. But this was good for my brain, and I was getting money of course. I started Presto!? with the money, and I bought some instruments. So it started as pure passion, I could say, “I have this money, I want to press the first record releases and see what happens.” The first release was John Hudak. I liked his work and we started to chat, and it was amazing because he was showing me all the process, he sent me the album after one week. And so I got really enthusiastic and now I’m addicted to releasing music.
I was very bad at the business side. The worst was when I contacted Florian Hecker. It took one afternoon to write the email, six hours. He replied, “Let’s do it, I have this project.” In my mind I thought, everything he’s proposing, I’ll say yes – and he proposed a double 10”, the most expensive format ever, with pink fluorescent pantone, green fluorescent pantone, high gloss, different pantones on the labels. It was so expensive. I said, “Yeah sure, let’s do it.” It cost me a fortune and was very slow to make the money back.
You’ve got to learn at some point.
I’m not learning. I learned that I needed to ask one guy to help me. So if he’s saying “you’re crazy,” maybe I should think about it.
What happened between Dunno in 2010 and 2012’s Quantum Jelly?
Already with Dunno I was looking back to my friends and that kind of music. I was thinking, “I know a lot of this music, and let’s ask them if they still have the records.” But I was more interested in techno in their record collections, not trance. There is a track on Dunno – ‘In High Places’ – it’s the longest one, it already uses the pulsar synthesis and is already looking towards Quantum Jelly. At that time I was chatting with Roc [Jiménez de Cisneros, of EVOL] a bit, he was doing his rave-oriented music. I released a cassette by him, so we were already in contact.
So I started looking at these things, and after I got the records from my friends, Roc was playing me this ravey stuff to me saying, ‘do you know these tracks?’ We were sharing things and I went through YouTube and bought compilations on Discogs, like for one Euro, and then I started being interested in trance. The first approach to Quantum Jelly I did was start to cut out the build-ups from these trance tracks. That was the part I was finding interesting. I was feeling like it’s all the same – especially if they’re not big hits, the others are all the same – but the build-up is interesting, it’s more personal and the musician can express themselves there even if it’s functional, because it has to bring you from the breakdown again to the kick. It’s functional but there’s freedom in how to reach it. The musical counterpoint – find an interesting way to use this couple of minutes. So I cut out all of this and put it in a folder and start collecting. Then I played a couple of shows putting together these build-ups, one to the other. One would loop maybe 10 times and then the other, like a display. Roc invited me to play in Barcelona at this festival called Supersymmetria, a very small festival with eight acts. Florian was there, Phil Niblock, and I played that stuff. I got a very bad review in The Wire of that show. It was very bad.
That’s something to be proud of.
You know what, I’m very proud, because it was Lisa Blanning doing that review. After a while I met her in Berlin and I said, “you are the girl that reviewed my concert very badly,” and she said “yeah.” We started talking – this was when I’d just released Quantum Jelly – and she was open to try and understand what had been happening in Barcelona. Because she was thinking that I was thinking “wow, trance is great.” It’s a different thing. In the end she wrote a piece about me for FADER.
With Quantum Jelly some people really liked it and some people didn’t really understand it, Superimpositions was kind of an explanation of Quantum Jelly.
I thought with Quantum Jelly you were finding your feet, where with Superimpositions you had it nailed.
Yeah I think that’s exactly right. Because with Quantum Jelly I tried to put this approach and this interest and the build-ups in context, and tried to transpose this idea in relation to the music I like and the interest I have. It was just a matter of trying things. I got the Roland JP8000 [synthesizer] because if I had to approach trance music I had to have that synthesizer. If I think now I’m quite proud of being very naive and saying “let’s try this trance synthesizer.”
I think that’s a good thing.
Yeah, let’s go straight to the point, I need the best way to make it happen. And I was playing around with that but I was thinking “this is trance, I’m doing trance now,” so in my mind I had to dry it up. There was a lot of decoration and useful bits in this build-up so I wanted to really focus what you hear and what could be.
One of the first moves was just to put all the envelopes down, and then open them just a bit because long notes were too dramatic. Then slowly, slowly trying to make it more musical. And with Superimpositions, the technique was already clear to me, so I had to just make a step forward – I can make another five Quantum Jellys, it’s just a matter of following this recipe. With Superimpositions the idea was to try to open my mind in a different way, [using] the Quantum Jelly approach but looking to other musical styles, being more open to having it be more song-oriented. That develops in a different way.
Superimpositions is the result of always being in the studio after Quantum Jelly, always recording. It was very difficult going through all the material I recorded, seeing which tracks have potential, if I should develop it and spend time on it. What I was conscious of in Superimpositions which I wasn’t conscious of in Quantum Jelly was if one step could be too much. I needed to stay very on the edge of being “there” – between it being accessible pop but being coherent.
“When I do Stargate material I just want to put on [Neon Genesis] Evangelion, and I put my hands on the synths, and maybe I don’t finish anything and it’s OK.”
How did the Stargate material spin off from Quantum Jelly?
That was the reaction to going through trance music and being submerged in all this stuff. At that time I was going through so many tracks every day, I would listen to a build-up and then download four gigabytes of trance, then look for more. I was very overloaded with this stuff. I love melodies, and Quantum Jelly was too dry and was tiring sometimes, so I started this project to be more free to open up to write melodies and songs using vocal samples. That’s how it started and it was a very good period.
The year before, I’d been to Japan and it was very inspiring to me – it was a very dreamy experience. So I had all these influences, like cyberpunk. For Stargate I’m going through all the imagery like cyberpunk, all this stuff I love. And I’m more free to have references to this, and not have to justify it with the conceptual side. Just referencing what I’m into, you know?
Are you working on any more Stargate material?
Yeah, I’m doing more. It’s just a very long process putting together Stargate because one of the things I don’t want to give up is having this guy writing me guitar solos. He’s from my home town, and I sent him some tracks. Also, when I do Stargate material I just want to put on [Neon Genesis] Evangelion, and I put my hands on the synths, and maybe I don’t finish anything and it’s OK. When I spend time on Stargate I can throw everything in the trash. It’s just a very emotional side, and I want to keep that alive. I’m working on it, and I have some good things, but it will take a while. [Hexplore Superfluidity] came out just because of Simone [Trabucchi]. I was saying I was doing these tracks, and asked if he wanted to listen. He’s one of my best friends and he lives 500 meters from my house in Milan. He said we should release it so I said “okay, are you sure?”
With Stargate I think I can be good at writing melodies, and I needed a project that I can be free to do it. And it went well, I was surprised – I played lots of shows with Stargate. People really liked it. Where I come from is the computer music thing, so I never experienced a fanbase or people that write to you – “I’m listening to this track while I make love to my girlfriend.” I never expected that but it’s great. All this emotional feedback. So for me Stargate is very connected to me. Also the jacket I did – I did a bomber jacket, it was like a joke to give to a friend, like a gang thing because Simone released the record and I was not yet living with my girlfriend. When you’re living with your girlfriend that’s one thing, but when you’re living with your friends you stay up all night, there are strange people you don’t know in the house, you know. It’s all connected to the emotional side. It needs to be like that.