"If I hear something interesting in the street, on the bus, in waiting rooms then I record it. Football hooligans, teenage girls threatening to stab each other." Rick Senley - Interviews - Soundblab

"If I hear something interesting in the street, on the bus, in waiting rooms then I record it. Football hooligans, teenage girls threatening to stab each other." Rick Senley

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

The music Rick Senley makes as both musicforvoyeurs and I Am a Man With a St Tropez Tan is by turns beautiful, ugly, serene, funny and deeply unsettling. It ranges from sky-blue ambience to post-rock guitar lament, from industrial churn and scrape to quasi-classical piano piece. There’s a powerfully visual, travelogue quality to much of it – faded photographs, shaky videos, snatches of conversation and ambient noise. You feel like Senley is trying to tell you something, but the communication has been hopelessly corroded and warped, leaving only impressions and code.

In other words, it’s very human music. In an oblique, unshowy way, Rick’s music captures something profound about the human condition. If you like Mogwai, Throbbing Gristle, Brian Eno, or Boards of Canada, I’d definitely recommend you check out his stuff.

Soundblab caught up with Rick to chat about darkness, despair, and stumbling around drunk and half-naked.

What are your influences? Your music has industrial, post-rock, classical and ambient elements but it’s very hard to nail it down to any specific genres.

My biggest influence would have to be The Cure. Even though my sound is getting further removed from Robert Smith, nearly every piece of music I make is at some level influenced by him.

‘Mickey’, by Bill Conti (from the film Rocky III) can make me cry. I’ve given up trying to learn to play it (I still can’t read music) so whenever I sit at the piano, that piece of music is always swirling around. I love the squalling Wedding Present, Pixies and My Bloody Valentine guitars and every time I try to do a Wonder Stuff song it somehow comes out as Aphex Twin.

Magnet (Norwegian singer) writes some heartbreakingly lovely songs; Johnny Marr would have to be an inspiration although he finished with The Smiths when he was still about six and I can’t even work out his most simple riffs let alone write something as beautiful as ‘Suffer Little Children’ or ‘Back to the Old House’. Seeing The Damned play ‘Neat Neat Neat’ live, made me want to get on stage and have things thrown at me by adoring strangers. And Bloc Party seem to have pulled off the magical combination of reaching every powerful emotion – ranging from fury to desolation and love – in all their records. Lucky buggers.

Can you explain the differences between your two guises, I Am a Man With a St Tropez Tan and musicforvoyeurs?

I Am a Man With a St Tropez Tan is mainly electronic and experimental and comes from the more playful part of my personality. It’s me letting go of what I try do with musicforvoyeurs – that is write more serious music with proper instruments.

Where I was living when most of the albums were made was rather chaotic. My flatmate ran a business from home and I was working freelance which meant we didn’t keep to normal hours. Or behaviour. Seeing him wandering around the flat drunk and half-naked for days on end was inevitably going to have some influence on my output.

When the guests went home, he locked himself in the dark for a week, so depending on whether or not I had joined in would play a big part on what came out of a music session. The chaotic stuff written at five in the morning when I’d been up all weekend ended up on St Tropez; musicforvoyeurs came from the silence before the storm.

Where did the names come from and what significance do they have?

musicforvoyeurs is voyeuristic, the part of me that doesn’t fit in, that feels that I don’t belong and can’t connect, watching other people’s lives that I have no part in. It’s about and it’s from sadness.

If I can’t live a proper life, I will sneak around and take their voices, their laughter and make something of my own from it. A lot of my life feels like a wedding photographer; always watching proper, happy people in love, holding hands over the cake, then going home empty.

But I’m not a completely morose recluse. I also love life and laughter and adventure – hence I Am a Man With a St Tropez Tan. The cover of the first St Tropez album was a sun-bleached beach but the music is a juxtaposition with the preconception conjured up by the name and imagery; I haven’t got the confidence to take myself seriously.

Also, although it’s all electronic with lots of beats, I’ve never been able to take club music seriously either – partly because I have always felt too self-conscious and envious of people who can enjoy themselves smiling and dancing in night-clubs. I just get surly and drunk and fall asleep in the street outside.

Your music sometimes has very interesting and unusual vocal samples in it. Where do you get these from and what do you look for?

Lots is snatched from what goes on around me. I’ve got a little Dictaphone that comes on my outings, so if I hear something interesting in the street, on the bus, in waiting rooms – strange diction, language, accents, arguments, then I record it. Football hooligans, teenage girls threatening to stab each other.

Other samples come from friends, from voicemails, spiritualists (‘There Is No Death’:

), getting drunk and leaving it recording to see what happens (‘Matt, Matt, Matt’ and a lot of breakages
), snoring, foreign news reports, the sounds of other countries. I’ve spent a long time listening to obscure television channels in the middle of the night and I found it very affecting hearing the amount of lonely people trying to connect with each other at four in the morning on ‘55 and From Wales’ (
).

How did you first get started making music?

I got a guitar when I was 16, tried to learn a couple of Sex Pistols songs then stopped playing because I wasn’t famous. I then joined a band called Gent who sounded like The Cure – they let me in because the only other guitarist to audition was a tramp who played for 10 seconds in a phone box before the money ran out. In hindsight, I can say we were actually very good and both ahead of and behind our time.

We split up because I would get too drunk to play live and the singer wouldn’t keep his clothes on. I got thrown out of one of our gigs, we got banned from a few venues and the bass player punched me. I loved it but the rest of the band didn’t. I stopped playing again because I wasn’t famous.

A few years ago, my girlfriend died. Two months later I ruptured the ligaments in my knee (not ski jumping as I claimed but getting stuck under a pub table), ended up in hospital and had to learn how to walk again. I spent my time on crutches not feeling very good about things after the morphine and sympathy dried up then realised I was actually living in a ready-made studio – grand piano, trumpet, violin, keyboards, booze, thick walls, understanding neighbours and all the recording software I could need.

A friend also kept his drum-kit there until I accidentally recreated a drum-kit scene from the film Step Brothers. That was the last I saw of the drumsticks. I’d never played the piano or keyboards before so started messing around with it all to take my mind off the real world. I found my guitar from Gent and over the next few years started collecting more unusual instruments. I’ve managed to make songs with a zither, bagpipe chanter, sitar and bicycle wheel so far.

Your music veers between very serene and beautiful, and industrial noise or sinister soundscapes, sometimes in the space of a single piece. How do you go about composing? Is there an overall plan when you start?

I hardly ever visualise the entire piece. If it’s guitar or piano-based, then I will have a chord sequence or melody and take it from there, adding layers and instruments. The electronic songs usually come about once I’ve found a particular sound, beat, or sample and the rest of the time I’m trying to create or capture a particular mood.

With a St Tropez song, ‘Please Be Careful What You Do With Yourself’, I was intent on making it as discordant, chaotic and unpleasant as possible although still managing to keep it structured and rhythmic. I remember being astounded when I first heard the song ‘Pornography’ by, yes, The Cure. I’d only heard pop and punk before that and I was shocked by the mesmerising awfulness of that song, a song that’s still powerful today, so ‘Please Be Careful What You Do With Yourself’

) was a chance to channel a lot of anger. The flat was empty, the neighbours were away so I screamed.

You’re also a photographer. Your music does seem quite ‘visual’ to me. Is that something you aim for? Do visuals inform your music?

No, but my photography comes from a similar place as musicforvoyeurs. Feeling distanced and isolated from everything and everyone around me, I try to make that essential connection for myself with my camera. I have since had some music used on film soundtracks and this is something I would very much like to take further.

Your music often sounds quite insular and withdrawn too. Is that a reflection of its creator or is there something specific you want to communicate to the listener?

Definitely a reflection of me, the giggling recluse who loves going out. I don’t believe I’ve got anything to say with music. I write it and play it and love doing that and if anyone listening gets something out of it, then that’s made me happy, though obviously not enough to stop me coming up with new depressing dirges.

On your recent release EICV7" No. 50, who is that talking on ‘I Knew It Was Love’?

Rich Stiles, a friend from London with a wonderful repertoire of accents. I put him on the spot with the microphone and demanded a performance of whatever region I threw at him – Southampton, Dudley, Isle of Wight, Liverpool. The words he came out with from Glasgow were actually quite touching so after listening back to it a few times, I thought it would work nicely with a guitar (and the old-fashioned ambulance siren that always makes me think of the film An American Werewolf in London).

There often seems to be a real sense of forbidding and loss. Is that intentional?

Yes and no. That’s what I feel, so that’s what comes out but I have tried to write more jolly sounding stuff and it still sounds the same.

From what I’ve read you’ve been through some painful experiences. Is music a form of exorcism for you?

As I mentioned earlier, at first it was to stop me thinking too much and give me something to do other than get depressed, then it did gradually become cathartic and a way of indirectly accessing certain uncomfortable feelings; likewise in the few spoken-word pieces, my lyrics help me attempt to articulate events and emotional states I would otherwise feel incapable of doing. I also went partly round the bend a couple of years ago so when I felt well enough to concentrate and focus on the music, it was a great, recuperative help.

What were your first musical loves?

Adam & the Ants, Madness, Depeche Mode and Dollar.

Do you ever collaborate with other artists? 

I was asked by the EICV (Everything is Chemical) label to record an EP for their 50th release and collaborated with an American musician called Docile who had written their first one and the result was Colliding Lovers (http://eicvirtual7inch.bandcamp.com/track/colliding-lovers-feat-docile). I’d never done worked with anyone before and it was incredibly exciting and modern, emailing snippets back and forth.

We were both too polite at first to offer any suggestions, but once it got going, I  really looked forward to hearing what he had done with my ideas and vice versa every day. I have also done a few bits and pieces with Dave Webb (http://islandsofescape.bandcamp.com/) over the years, something we need to pick up again.

What’s your next project?

I’m currently in Bangkok researching a novel, so ideally inventing a pair of glasses that would stop me seeing cockroaches. Music-wise, I’m halfway through a musicforvoyeurs album based on a short film called Encounter and the new St Tropez album is coming nicely, if a little strangely.

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