Senser – Heitham Al-Sayed

Interview by Mark Bayross

Ten years after their ground-breaking debut album STACKED UP kick-started the rap/techno/metal crossover frenzy that was to eclipse them and leave the band split in two, Senser are back together with the original line-up and a new album, SCHEMATIC, waiting in the wings. Ready to pick up where they left off, PHASE9 spoke to Heitham Al-Sayed, one half of the band’s dual vocal attack.

How does it feel to have the band back together again?

It feels great, it’s been a really good release for everyone and we’re all really into it again.

Do you think the time spent apart was a positive thing in the end?

Yes, I think it was positive. It had to be done; we didn’t really have any choice, we had to have a break. We had all spent too much time together in a confined space and we were starting to lose sight of what we liked about each other in the first place. We remained friends throughout, actually probably because of that time apart.

What do you think you learned from that time apart?

Personally, I did a lot of music, I had lots of projects on the go. I got involved with FDB, which is a hip-hop label, and I started up my other band Entronaut. As a band, we had to do other things as well – some people became teachers, got pregnant, we all did normal jobs in between as we had to support ourselves. We never got involved in sponsorship deals or anything like that, although we were offered them. We rejected them of course – clearly that wouldn’t have been right for us.

When STACKED UP came out, it seemed to be at exactly the right time to make an impact. Ten years on, do you think the new album is likely to hit the same nerve, given the state of the current world situation?

You know, the world has always been screwed up. It’s in a state of constant flux and there’s no idea of a utopian state, there never really has been. I’m optimistic, but I’m not a romantic idealist. Having said that, it’s true that the state of the world is the most dire it has been in my lifetime. We have to deal with rampant opportunism and the imperialist forces of, to some extent, our government, but especially the US. It’s only natural that the current situation inspires resistance. We aren’t in the same league as bands like Crass or Conflict – we don’t live in a commune or anything like that – and really, I honestly don’t care enough! It [political and social commentary] is part of what we do, but that’s all. If others find something in our music, then great. If you go to see a band, it’s to see rock music. You go to jump about or get off with someone or whatever it is you do when you go to see a band. You can’t judge the secondary effects the music may have, you know? We’re just there to make it rock!

What can we expect from the new album?

It’s an evolution from the first album because it’s the same line-up as on the first one. This is what we are doing now, what we are expressing instinctively – it’s a natural progression from the first album rather than the second because that was the sound of what that group of musicians were feeling at the time. We’re all very proud of it, of course. It was also different because it was recorded in a different way – this one was done over months and in layers – we all added our parts and sent it to each other over the Internet. Besides being an interesting way for us to build the songs, we were also able to do it at no cost. It was almost like a statement to show that you don’t need record companies.

You have given away the BULLET PROOF single over the Internet as a free download – do you see the Internet as a good platform for musicians or, as the major record companies are saying, as a threat to your livelihood?

It was the two singles actually [BULLET PROOF and THE BRUNT / CRUCIBLE]. You can also buy them on etched vinyl, for those people who like to actually have the physical record in their hands… The Internet is essentially the biggest gossip mill on earth, and I think it can be used positively to take the power away from the record companies so you end up with just the bands that play live. Record companies are like banks – it’s nice to be able to use them, but they always want a return on their investment.

Do you use it to stay in touch with your fans?

To some extent, but it’s more the case that they use it to stay in touch with each other.

What about the fact that record companies are increasingly marketing product to get a return on their investment? Do you find the state of music today depressing?

No, not at all! I’m finding more and more exciting things. If you read the NME you may as well shoot yourself in the face, but if you keep your ear to the ground, you can find some great stuff out there. Actually, I think the state of music today is better than when we were first doing Senser. I recently heard a band called Lightning Bolt that was incredible, and I am listening to a lot of stuff on the Anticon label. I also do other kinds of music – I have a band called Entronaut that is very grindy doomy metal band. We’ve been very lucky with Senser – just because you love the music you are making doesn’t mean you will always strike the zeitgeist, but we seem to have been able to genuinely touch people.

Did the change in the song-writing process [using the Internet] have an effect on the structure or style of the songs this time around?

To some degree it has changed the way the songs have evolved. You do get a different feeling doing it this way; you don’t get that live band jamming feeling. Actually, that used to be the most difficult part of writing the songs last time. Now, you can chop and change and let someone else work on it. It’s pretty exciting – it’s like someone taking your sketch and improving on it – you always get a nice surprise…so long as they don’t fuck it up!

Have the new songs changed when you’ve played them live?

Yeah, sometimes when we play live, they get tweaked and adjusted.

How have the live shows gone? Have people taken to the new songs?

We’ve done a few small shows around England, played a few Barflys. People have generally taken to the new songs. It’s good when you play the new stuff and people get into it straightaway, which is what has been happening.

Which are the songs you most enjoy playing? Which ones give you goosebumps?

Goosebumps…? I don’t know if there’s a particular song, but there are moments in certain songs…it’s different each night, really. I’ll hear a different sound or a different chord and become aware of it. Plus, I’m quite busy up there! We’re trying to give other people goosebumps! But, yes, you can get outside of yourself sometimes.

What has been the highlight of the last ten years for you?

I suppose the times when I have had the chance to play with bands I love. We played with New Kingdom, which was fantastic. They asked me to play percussion for them and I was there onstage with them playing timpani. They got hold of Keith Moon’s gong as well, and I got to play all this orchestral percussion in these really small venues. It was also great to play with bands like the Rollins Band and Tool. We recognised them as being something special way back before UNDERTOW came out and I got to support Tool with Lodestar [the band Heitham formed with fellow band members John Morgan and Haggis between leaving Senser and re-joining].

You have another UK tour now, and the album SCHEMATIC coming out – what are your plans after that?

The album coming out is like a big sigh of relief for us – it was a long time in the making! After that, we are playing a few festivals in Europe. I’m not sure about the UK as the bills are filling up. We’ll then look at the next album – we have bits and pieces of songs, some complete, some semi-complete…the aim is to record the album by October and keep the momentum going this time.

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