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Talking Persona, Place and Production With Lorenzo Senni

We spoke to the Italian producer ahead of his new EP and approaching UK dates.

Late next month, rave voyeur Lorenzo Senni will descend upon London. The multi-faceted, prodigiously talented Italian producer has spent the last few years amassing a loyal following of fans who are simultaneously perplexed and pleased with his stuttering and astringent trance-not-trance, and 2016 saw him release the fantastically beguiling Persona EP on Warp. Given that he's about to hit our shores, we've brought over this incredibly interesting interview with Senni himself from our good friends over at Noisey Italia.

THUMP: How did you get into music?
Lorenzo Senni: My father is a mechanic and has always loved music, so it was always playing in the house. He loved classic rock, like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, but would also play soundtracks, too, stuff like Goblin's work for Dario Argento's movies. There was a lot of Italian music playing, too. The house I grew up in was attached to my grandparents' house, where he'd grown up. He used to think of my room as a kind of disco, and at weekends he'd invite friends round to listen to music, to dance. My first love was the guitar—I had a few lessons and then got into the hardcore sound of places like Cesena and Ravenna. The Romanga scene has always been pretty strong, with bands like the Reprisal and the Sentence. They were a few years older than me but already had music released, sometimes on American labels, and they were going on tour.

When I was 16 I started playing jazz drums and it changed my life: it was a strange time and I didn't understand what exactly I liked, and drums gave me direction. I played with guys who used synthesizers, multi-effect pedals, beat on the bass strings with chopsticks, sounds from behind the rock territory that was familiar to me. My teacher, John D'Angelo, was 70 years old. I remember the first lesson, I asked him where I could rent pieces for the instrument, and he said, "But you sleep at night?" Of course yes, I sleep. "And then you're good to go as well. For the first three or four months you need is a pillow." His charisma had won me over.

And how did you get from there to electronics?
When I was nineteen I went to study music at the DAMS of Bologna and I met the David Tudor and John Cage. Who were the "sons" of these composers? From there I got into Editions Mego, Raster Noton, that kind of thing. I bought their records from Underground Records. The whole scene was using Max/MSP as the main tool, so I started using it too. Mego had a kind of split personality thing going on, using this academic software with irony, and I read every interview with Pita, ever interview with Fennesz, and figured I needed a Powerbook G3.

How do you compose now?
Until Superimpositions, with computers that send sequences of notes to a synth. Once you've found a melody, you can loop it and move it from the computer to the synth to work on the sound parameters. I've changed my procedures recently, though. I've got no desire to do another Quantum Jelly.

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Those two albums have seen you take a place in the discourse around the idea of "deconstructing rave," right? Artists who work with elements of historical dance sounds and arrive at a non-functional result.
It's strange to be in the middle of it. It all started because I came back to the sounds I used to hear out at the weekend with my best friends. We went to a club called Cocoricò and listened to commercial stuff. I didn't like the beat, but there was something interesting in them. So I started playing with them, and cutting bits out, and eventually got invited to play a festival in Barcelona with Florian Hecker, Phil Niblock, Cut Hands and Mark Fell. And got a shitty review in The Wire.

When I read people writing about the deconstruction of rave, I'm not sure if it's a definition that fits me fully. There was a time when it was a shorthand way of referring to a bunch of musicians, people like Lee Gamble, who were into throwing old styles and sounds into a cauldron.

Did you ever feel a little 'caged' in?
If you say you make "pointillistic trance," you're inevitably connected to trance. And then people ask you if you like trance. When I'm asked that I say, "trance is exactly the kind of music I'm trying to avoid making." But no, I don't feel caged in or trapped.

How did you get to Persona?
There were a few pieces that had been around for a while and only just committed to disc. Warp wanted to hear something, and I was working on stuff with less arpeggios and chords, stuff with more layers than I'd been using previously. I also tried to insert verses and choruses, and I'm not sure if I succeeded. I wanted, however, there to be a kind of continuity. The reactions have been very positive, in general, and while some fans were maybe put off by it not following old parameters, others were into it.

How did you choose the title?
It is a word that exists in Italian and English, with slightly different meanings: individual and character. Then there's this Japanese video game called Persona based on the dichotomy between the characters and creatures who are the embodiment of secret aspects of their internal character, who emerge in battle and help them. This duality has always interested me in terms of what I have experienced and how I present myself, between seemingly irreconcilable aspects of me. We'll always come back to the history of unfulfilled expectations, till the end.

The Ed Atkins cover is perfect, can you tell us a little about it?
I was interested in the emotional side of things this time round. It was about my encounters with trance, and how I followed my friends to parties but remained sober. In those in environments, I was a voyeur. I'd maybe watch a girl, or linger to listen to an interesting melody, and had fun but in an observational role. I'd seen Ed's film Ribbons and the protagonist reminded me of a friend, and I was intrigued. I'd also met Hans Ulrich-Obrist in London because he'd written something about me for a German magazine. Ed Atkins did a talk with Hans at the Serpentine and I got Hans to connect me and Atkins, which he did. Fortunately he knew my music and it went well. That's not always guaranteed with an artist of that calibre.

How's your record label Presto!? Going?
I've always said that the label is a way of collaborating with people I've massively respected: John Hudak, Lawrence Inglese, Greg Davis, Florian Hecker, Evol etc. There were a couple of months that became a couple of years where the label was stationary. She's back in shape now, and we're preparing to release a quadruple record of field recordings by Toshiya Tsunoda. The idea is to satisfy our tastes, staggering from techno to field recordings.

What do you like besides music?
I like Magic the Gathering. I had to sell my collection of cards for €500 and now it'd be worth closer to €3000. I learned English from that game, not songs. I'm still skating, and I've got a few friends who are still passionate about it. I go to Lampugnano Skate Plaza.

Finally, what are you working on now?
My newest project is entirely based on samples, maybe 500 of them. I am presenting the composition to the Tate in March, at the invitation of Andrea Lissoni.

Lorenzo Senni plays London's Oslo on the 29th of March. More information can be found here.