A MEETING OF MINDS
By Pippa Lang
11th April 2011
As Senser's new single, '2, 3, Clear', is released as a free download today (with a mix of 'seismic proportions'), Pippa Lang chats to singer Heitham Al Sayed about philosophy, reality tunnels and authenticity. Oh, and there's some superficial banter about women getting pregnant when they should be on tour, too. Mix it up!
Ah, 1994: Senser's 'Stacked Up' blasting its contagious dub-Metal fusion from my Brixton suitcase all summer; bouncing on the beach with my mates, our Album Of The Year! Not only ours, but enough genre-crossing hard bass fanatics to send it jumping in at UK No 4.
I've been away from Senser's life since then, occasionally cocking an ear to rumours from the underground: singer Heitham absconds to form Lodestar... Heitham defects to France to 'find his voice'. So I haven't missed much. Senser, it seems, remained static with 'Stacked Up', an album that united Metal, dub and hip-hop in one dancin', bangin', pumpin' no-exclusion zone. Hybrid joy.
Then, at the arse-end of 2009, a new album, 'How To Do Battle', 'Stacked Up''s follow-up at last – never mind the two in between. Senser have popped out of a time capsule, it seems, and I'm in hot pursuit, along with a plethora of like-minded, infinitely patient Senser-tive types (ouch).
After the accompanying tour, they were greeted like prodigal sons at Download last year, confirming that, yes, it was worth waiting fifteen years for their return 'home'.
Senser are the same as they ever were, although there is a notable, temporary, absence on their current tour.
She-of-the-ethereal-lungs Kerstin (pronounced 'Sherstin') is on maternity leave, so singer iMMa is standing in for her:
"A: She's gorgeous, B: She sounds great... no... A: She sounds great, B: She's gorgeous!"
Heitham corrects himself, obviously unwilling to appear like some drooling neanderthal (of which there are plenty here at London's Kick Out The Jams Festival, lolol – get on the MetalTalk.net Forum, you know the drill). Neanderthallic is about as far from the tiny firebrand's psyche as you can get, by the way. He clears his throat, swivelling brain to matters of a more serious, maternal nature:
"Yeah, it's gonna be Kerstin's third baby, so we really couldn't expect her to bounce about onstage..."
Ah, the old pregnancy tactics, I joke, recalling my guitarist having to back out of a gig at the Bulldog Bash years ago, because his wife was about to drop. Some women, honestly.
"Yeah, I think Kerstin did it on purpose!" Heitham joins in on the joke, and we spend a coupla minutes bitching about women deliberately planning births to disrupt tour schedules. Just joshing, Kerstin!
We're chatting amidst (or, rather, shouting over) the backstage hubbub of the indoor noise festival at the 229 Club. Heitham, known for being a bit of a hothead, warms to my ancient experience of the band, and we nod sagely about the old times for a while. I'm proud to have championed my fellow Surrey dwellers' corner in '94, fighting to get this predominantly hip-hop/dub, albeit juggernaut-heavy band into the biggest monthly Metal mag at the time.
Later tonight, he allegedly tells one young journalist, "don't you know who we are?!" Quite possibly not, considering a whole generation has been born since 'Stacked Up', some of whom are now testing their wings as fledgling journos ('research' being a whole new concept, ahem).
This brings us to the new single, '2, 3, Clear' which, it transpires, some may be too young to understand - although lack of life experience is, of course, only temporary, whereas music is indelible, and thus constantly re-experienced... Yes. Philosophy lesson about to begin. Are you sitting comfortably? Let Heitham begin:
"'2, 3, Clear' is like a stream of consciousness. In the context of this band, I think about specific things, but sometimes I just let a stream of consciousness grow in this kind of mystical way. Like comic book writer Alan Moore will sometimes just open up and let this stream of consciousness loose on a multi-dimensional level. I guess Burroughs would be a good example of getting ideas and cutting them up, but I don't actually cut them up, I just let them go.
"Philosopher Robert Anton Wilson, for example, talks about how each person has their own reality tunnel. Imagine, say, a fundamentalist Muslim and somebody who's into Burlesque, for example - their lives are so disparate, there's no point at which their reality tunnels touch. I'm at an ideal psychological place now, where I can widen my tunnel so all these different ones cross mine, and I can see all these points of view. There's never gonna be enough time to grab all these different viewpoints, but they're all in here (Heitham taps his head)."
"In the context of the band, I've got loads of ideas going on musically, different ideologies, influences, and things that've happened to me in the past, when I was a teenager, my first musical experiences, first drug experiences – all these are sort of conjoining. It's extremely personal, and I feel quite weird about sharing it with other people, because I don't know how they'd take it, it's probably too abstract!"
A matter of perception. As far as Senser's concerned, Heitham is open-minded about other people's opinions of their music. So, 'youngsters' may not get '2, 3, Clear' or, indeed, any of 'How To Do Battle' until they're older. Like reading 'Alice In Wonderland' as a child and as an adult, there're nuances (and smoking caterpillars) that the child just cannot see. But:
"I really don't care if they get it now or when they're older! Everything's in there, in the songs, if you listen to the words, you'll get it. You know, how long should you wait for people to understand something. If you don't understand it, Google it!"
(Does Heitham have shares in Google? I wonder.)
What I mistook for petulance when I interviewed Heitham in Southampton in '94 (at a gig interrupted by some twat who triggered off the fire alarm) is, I'm now realising, merely a reluctance to give Senser's songs to people on a plate – why should the band do all the work? Another misjudgement is his 'ego'. Far from flaunting Senser, he absolutely hates hearing his own music in public:
"It feels weird! I hate walking into a party and somebody's playing Senser, it feels really awkward..."
Maybe that's one of the reasons he left Senser for a while: his loathing of sycophants. He's a fierce advocate of authenticity – whether it's in those who create music or those who listen to it:
"My best friend's not really a big fan of the band, so when he came to see us and said he really enjoyed it, I knew he meant it. I don't like people coming up and going 'oh man, you're really great', just for the sake of it."
A man who can't take compliments then. So, he broke away, first to the ill-fated Lodestar, then hopped around a few other bands, including Entronaut and French group Fiend (Heitham commutes between France and England a lot these days), the latter gleaning rave reviews. But there was another reason he left. He wanted to learn to sing properly:
"I wanted to learn to really use my voice coz I was always shouting. Vocal training makes you realise what your voice can and can't do. For example, I can't do that death Metal screaming, but I can do an Einsturzende Neubaten scream – you just open up your throat and all this white noise comes out. But I think the best kind of voice is when a singer sings with melody and a bit of grain.
"But I did the learning too publicly with Lodestar. The band were formed too quickly. It was amazing, very passionate, very intense, but we went straight out on tour with no build-up, so it blew out really quickly."
So, after his enlightening sabbatical, he returned to Senser, armed with both vocal and life experience. Like standing away from a painting to see the full picture, he must've seen, and missed, Senser's rare collaborative spirit...
There is no one 'composer' in the band; songs begin life as individual concepts from different band members ('streams of consciousness' in Heitham's case, presumably). They don't sit down and hold a meeting about an album's 'concept' before recording, like some bands too:
"We can't. There're so many different ideas coming from different directions, so we can't draw a line through the whole thing, find the link, until afterwards. At that point, after we've decided what works and what doesn't, everybody chips in and we say 'okay what's the common thread in all this?', and that's really good fun, the joy of making something stick together."
No room for egos fighting for provenance, then. From the point at which ideas get flung into the band's blender, they're no longer anyone's personal property:
"You have to just let your own personal ideas go, and allow them to become part of Senser. And when recording's over and the songs are out there for anyone to listen to, they become public property, they're not yours, they're not even the band's anymore. They belong to everybody – and everybody will gain a different experience from each song."
Watching the band later, pounding out their irresistible beats, I note the disparate groups in the crowd: the older, so-solid 'Stacked Up' crew bobbing and weaving together, safely in the middle; the youngsters who've created a moshpit at the front from the juggernaut bass and, of course, the apathetic standing at the back.
It's all a matter of call and response. Senser talk to us in word, rhythm and beat – Heitham is such an eloquent ranter! - how we respond to that call is up to us. I know what my reply is: good to see you again after fifteen years – '2, 3, Clear... back to life!'
And remember what Uncle Heitham says: "If you don't understand it, Google it!"
For your free download of '2, 3, Clear', click here for http://www.senser.co.uk/ now!
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