INTERVIEW: Senser – Sunflowerfest Headliners

senserUncategorisable Senser released their debut LP ‘Stacked Up’ in 1994, and have since survived semi splits, numerous lineup changes and the unwanted ‘Darlings of the NME’ tag.

They remain as politically relevant today as in the early nineties and make their long awaited return to these shores on Saturday 1st August to headline the increasingly popular Sunflowerfest in Lisburn.

Currently on their UK tour and having just played Bristol, Cardiff and London, Gigging NI’s Ross Scott got the opportunity to talk to them ahead of their Sunflowerfest showdown after more than 15 years absence.

For anybody seeing Senser at Sunflowerfest and are completely unaware, how would you describe your sound?

John: “We’re a mixture of heavy rock, hip hop, electronic, funk and psychedelia. Difficult to say exactly. It’s an intense mixture with moments of release.”

Your number of releases suggests you are a band more at home live, is that the case? What’s your most memorable live experience?

John: “We are more of a live band, we’ve always gigged really hard and put a lot of energy into each gig we do. Maybe if we had the luxury of spending months at a time, every year in the recording studio we would have made more records. But that costs a lot of money ! There are so many live experiences, but two of them are at Reading Festival. 1st time we played in the tent, and it was completely rammed, people were going nuts and climbing up the support poles ! The next time we played the main stage in front of a vast sea of people, all bouncing up and down and singing along in the late afternoon summer sun. Pretty amazing when I look back at videos on YouTube, but these things happen so fast as you’re caught up in the moment, playing your arse off and trying to harness all the adrenalin flying round your body!”

So have you any time pre or post gig to check out some Irish hospitality?

James: “Due to budget airline flight times quite often our schedule is – fly in, do the show, get a few hours’ sleep (if we’re lucky) then fly back first thing, unfortunately it’s looking a bit that way on this occasion but we’ll hopefully get to soak up some of the festival vibes at Sunflowerfest.”

When did you last play Belfast? Any memories?

James: “We last played in Belfast in 98 and before that was 93, there was quite a contrast in the city between those two visits with an obvious military presence in 93 and then a new vibrancy in 98 but the energy and vibe at both gigs was amazing, we’re really looking forward being back again.”

Would Senser 2015 describe themselves as “politically charged”, as this tag seemed to follow you everywhere in 1994?

Heitham: “Being politically charged in today’s musical landscape is so easy, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. I can count the number of bands who actually sing about anything socially pertinent on one hand.”

Most young bands these days seem to be whining little posh kids plucked from some performing arts school. They have no drive to express any discontent. It didn’t surprise me when I found out how old Sleaford Mods are. They’re a breath of fresh air to me.

“As I’ve always maintained, it’s not for every band to express these ideas in their music but we have always done so without compromise. So in that sense that tag is perfectly understandable.”

Does the current political landscape make you even more enthusiastic about recording new music?

Heitham: “I think that question implies that we need political strife and social injustice in order to write, which we really don’t. In terms of lyrics (because it’s harder to imagine political guitars or drums) they are to some degree a reflection of what I see and experience . I’m in a privileged position to be able to vent some of the frustration that many people experience on a day-to-day basis . I’m not just reading from the morning paper, It’s an artistic process which functions on many levels and can function without that element . I guess to some degree the horrors of the world feed our work but I would trade our potential song writing inspiration for some lasting peace and stability in the world in a second.”

When can we expect any new material?

James: “We’ve always got new ideas and tracks on the go… eventually we get to the point where we think ‘yeah, it’s starting to look like we’ve got an album here’ so we book time in for a final push. We’re at the ideas stage at the moment and there’s some stuff going on we’re really into so hopefully we can hit the next stage really soon… realistically it’ll be 2016 at the earliest for our next release.”


Did you ever feel the music and the message got overshadowed in the early days with the “crossover” and British Rage Against The Machine comparisons?

James: “We used to get the ‘British RATM’ comparison A LOT! We both came out at roughly the same time featuring rap, guitars, politicised lyrics… it was an exciting time to be experimenting with music back then but there’s as many differences between Senser’s and RATM’s sound as there are similarities. It’s understandable people would make the comparison though, it’s quite a compliment really – RATM are great band who’ve achieved some amazing things and it was great to gig with them back in early 90’s. I once saw an interview with RATM where it was mentioned RATM were the American version of Senser. Was good to see the comparison going the other way.”

A watered down version of your early musical style went on to become huge in the late 90s, do you think you were ahead of your time?

James: “In the early 90’s there was just a handful of bands like Senser, RATM, PWEI and Public Enemy experimenting with Hip Hop, guitars, crossover sounds and thought provoking lyrics. By the end of the nineties there were a multitude of bands copying that style in a very dumbed down and generic way. It actually put us off aspects of that sound for a long time, something we’re really wary of to this day.”

Who are your main musical influences these days?

Heitham: “Our influences at the start of the band are pretty well-documented so I won’t put you through that again. Right now I listen to a lot of Italian film music from the 60s. Some dark ambient music like Nordvargr , a little Bolt Thrower, Obnox, Dead Residents, Despot, Arndales. I like the Finders Keepers label for 60’s/70’s funk from around the world. Godseed , Agoraphobic Nosebleed.”

Are there plans to do future shows with both Kerstin and Erika sharing the stage?

John: “Both Erika and Kerstin are great singers and performers but the songs are written for 2 vocals really, a 3rd vocal would find it hard to find a space, the sound is pretty full as it is but you never know…”

Senser will be headlining Sunflowerfest’s main stage on Saturday 1st August at 10.40pm. To purchase tickets and explore the full Sunflowerfest line-up visit www.sunflowerfest.co.uk.