Since releasing Quantum Jelly in 2012, Italian producer Lorenzo Senni has helped stoke a renewed interest in trance. His innovative variations have re-contextualized a maligned sound and his latest release, Persona, is the pinnacle of his achievements. John Twells traces the influences and inspirations behind one of the year’s finest records.
Lorenzo Senni is home in Milan when we finally get to talk about Persona, his biggest release to date and his first for Warp Records. He’s had a busy year, jetting back and forth between London and Italy and performing his ambitious live show-cum-installation at festivals around the world. But he doesn’t seem tired; far from it, he’s as excitable and effusive as ever, and glad to be home even if just for a moment.
Persona might surprise those who were drawn to the relentless trance-inspired experiments of 2012’s Quantum Jelly and 2014’s Superimpositions. Senni’s primary reference point is still the big-room arpeggio-led sound that haunted mainstream European clubs throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Persona is deeper and more developed than its predecessors, anchored by memorable hooks and melodies which sit confidently above Senni’s familiar JP-8000 Supersaw patterns.
“Some of my friends say, ‘Is this your answer to getting signed to Warp?’ I think it is the opposite,” he says. Persona is Lorenzo Senni in 4K Ultra High Definition, tweaked with a precision that could easily be mistaken for a bigger budget. But he’s been working towards this sound for over a decade – some of the “new” tracks were even leftovers from the Superimpositions sessions. Senni hasn’t modified his sound to fit his new label or new profile; he’s evolved simply because that’s what he does.
When I interviewed him early last year, he explained how his childhood obsession with hardcore punk led to an interest in experimental music, which in turn drew him to the genre-bending digital sound art of Alva Noto, Mego and Ryoji Ikeda. As his sound morphed from the Fennesz-indebted vignettes of Early Works to the idiosyncratic “pointillistic trance” of Quantum Jelly, he showed a desire to keep pushing forward. With Persona, he has arrived at his latest iteration. But strangely enough, this new sound is most informed by Senni’s hardcore days.
“Quantum Jelly was like, ‘je je je je je je’,” he says, attempting to mimic the record’s signature arpeggios. “On the new EP I was looking for chords, not only arpeggios. I remembered from my old band, ‘duh duh duh duh.’” He makes a guitar sound, mouthing hardcore’s jagged syncopation. “So I went back to that stuff to see how I was working. That’s why there are fewer arpeggios – the arpeggios are a counterpoint.” It sounds like an unusual mix, but it works – Persona’s powerful chords are like a slap around the face when they crash down on opener ‘Win In The Flat World’, offsetting the wormy squiggles and giving the track a deep emotional resonance.
“Persona has been a process of searching for euphoria”
It’s not the first time Senni has given in to these emotional instincts. He started his other musical project, Stargate, to offset the “dry and tiring” nature of Quantum Jelly. (“I love melodies,” he told me in 2015. “So I started this project to be more free to open up to write melodies and songs using vocal samples.”) Where, then, does Persona leave Stargate? “I love Stargate but I care more for the Lorenzo Senni project,” he says. “I have this Stargate guy who will always influence what I’m doing, and I think that there is a lot of that in the new EP. I’m happy about it because taking care of the two projects is very difficult. I think it was important to have this side – this side of what I’m doing that could be expressed by Stargate.”
Senni’s brief list of influences for Stargate – Japan, cyberpunk and anime – are front and center on Persona. While trance still guides his hand, Senni is no longer trapped by its form. Instead he is free to paint melodies reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting piano motifs and generate vivid landscapes that wouldn’t be out of place in Neo-Tokyo. It feels as if Senni has at last arrived at his destination as an artist. Persona represents the first time his breadth of influences, from classic hardcore to extreme noise, have sat together in one place – and it’s only 32 minutes long.
These influences are highlighted prominently on the EP’s striking cover. Taken from a video by London-based artist Ed Atkins, the still image shows an androgynous figure looking through a spy hole, a scene which Senni relates to his experience as a dance music outsider, or ‘Rave Voyeur’, as one of the track titles suggests. “I thought the image was perfect,” he explains. “[The figure is] interested to the point of making [their] nose touch the wall – but not too much. This has always been my experience and describes it very well. A bit dramatic, a bit dark.” Is the figure human or android? “To me, it’s both. It’s a character, but he’s supposed to be everyone, not really human. It’s not me. It also is me.”
The cover’s hardcore punk influence is more subtle. Over Atkins’ image is a large black and yellow sticker designed to resemble the strips that Californian hardcore label Revelation Records used on their Japanese releases. “Nobody’s gonna get it of course,” Senni laughs. “The colors are the colors of Revelation Records. We did Warp in the same colors as Revelation Records. We wanted to give this input.”
The cover image makes me think. Senni has been mining trance for six years, sifting through tracks and researching the sound as well as producing his own variations. What started as a solitary pursuit – the lonely “rave voyeur” looking in on other people’s illicit enjoyment – has surely become social now he has a legion of followers? Persona is less like a single person looking in and more like Senni ushering others over to see what he sees and hear what he hears – to catch his very particular vision of club music and its allure.
“I like this [idea], because I think that everyone can relate to this voyeuristic thing,” he says. “The title, Persona, is because of that. ‘Persona’ can mean the character of a person, but in Italian it is a neutral way to describe a person. I realize now, after six years, I understand a bit of myself through this record. Or I understand the very basic things – how I was experiencing this 15 years ago. So it’s more personal, it’s more melodic or more composed, shaped in an emotional way.”
“Many musicians and artists can be stuck in overthinking. I think my work opened [them] up a bit”
Senni has never been shy about his outsider status as a consumer of dance music. As a straight-edge hardcore kid intrigued by the hedonistic tales of his club-going friends, he decided to involve himself in the sound without partaking in the surrounding culture. This separation has given him a unique edge – an ability to innovate without being tied to dance music’s rigid rules. Even so, he felt locked into a certain groove when he was making his previous albums. “With with Quantum Jelly and Superimpositions I had a rigid system that I wanted to avoid this time,” he points out.
That rigid system was one that he had pieced together through guesswork. Trance is hinged on an expression of euphoria, typically of a chemically enhanced variety. Not being a drug user, Senni based his expression of euphoria on a purely emotional understanding of the music. “It’s very difficult not being involved, so euphoria did not come naturally,” he says. “I think I know the recipe to get it, but not in the usual context. I’m not the DJ who is able to play three hours of trance or techno and drive people mad, no. But I think I can get this euphoria outside of the usual context. Persona has been a process of searching for euphoria.”
This juxtaposition of guesswork, research and passion is exactly why Senni’s music has been so vital, and why he’s become so influential over the last few years. Far from resenting his copyists, he welcomes the fact that other producers are now inspired by or working from his template. “It opens up a lot of possibilities for other people that thought they were stuck,” he says plainly.
“Many musicians and artists can be stuck in overthinking. And I think my work opened [them] up a bit. I’ve never been the one to say, ‘This is my idea.’ I get people sending me stuff like, ‘Have you heard this?’ Of course, I’m the first one, I can see some affinity, but no, it’s all good. It’s just positive. This is what I was doing 10 years ago, people tend to forget. But I don’t want to. My father forgets when he was young and I don’t want to do that. What I was doing with my first record was, not copying, but extremely influenced by Pita, Fennesz – you can tell instantly. If someone looks at me like I was looking at these people 10 years ago, I’m already grateful. These 20-year-old people coming to me, I’m like, ‘Fuck!’ I was the guy looking at what kind of gear people were using. So I understand perfectly. I don’t want to make the same mistakes.”
Senni is humble, but he’s right. And this is the sentiment that lies at the center of Persona – an eagerness to explore, a freedom and a desire to shake off the fusty shackles of experimental music. When I saw him perform at Mutek in Montreal earlier this year, his live show – an hour-long exercise in mischievous extremity which removes the drop from the trance template, ever-building into nothing – ended not with a bang but a dying fart. Giant CO2 canisters – the ones used in huge clubs to signify a build-up before a drop – were deployed after the music had come to a halt, hissing furiously until they began to whimper, finally running out of gas entirely. It was Senni’s last wink for anyone who managed to stay to the end, and was funny, poignant and startlingly effective, just like Persona – something familiar, but completely repurposed.
“They are strong signal of euphoria,” he says. “Even if you don’t listen to the music, you hear ‘chsssss’ and you know, ‘Oh fuck, there’s the drop!’ If you see a festival from five kilometers away, there’s the drop. It’s a strong signal that we are all used to, or if you are not used it, it is fresh, it breathes. And it’s this loud analog noise – it’s like it’s in a noise show. I think it’s the same pleasure, the same experience. I want to believe it’s coming from my years of noise shows.”
John Twells is on Twitter.