The UK/Austrian Dark Electronic duo, Senestra, are Alan Rider and Puppy38. The pair bring rich individual histories to the Senestra project. Alan has been part of Stress, Attrition, Dance Naked, Mummies & Madmen, and Adventures in Reality; while Puppy38 is noted for their work with Hirioshimabend and Opiumdenpluto. Alan is a great writer, his books include Tales from the Ghost Town, the history of the fanzine scene centered on Coventry and the West Midlands, and has recently begun to add very valuable insights on music to Outsideleft. While we’re thrilled about that, this Track by Track was scheduled way back in January. I know, you think we just throw it together each morning…
Senestra’s debut LP, Stanford, is out now on Fourth Dimension. Here Alan takes us through the thinking behind the record. Over to Alan...
Alan Rider: Many of you will be familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted on volunteer students from Stanford University, California in August 1971. In it, the subjects were divided into prisoners and guards in a fake ‘prison’ set up in the basement of the Psychology Faculty. They took to their roles so enthusiastically that what was intended to be a two week study had to be halted after just six days. The experiment raised a number of ethical concerns and certainly demonstrated how quickly human behaviours can change and degrade in a situation of power and powerlessness. There have been numerous books, documentaries, and feature films about the experiment, but I was surprised that there had never been a serious attempt to capture the essence of the experience in sound, so that formed the basis of our debut album ‘Stanford’.
Originally, we had envisioned six tracks, one for each day, lasting six minutes each, and utilising combinations of no more than six notes, to make up 666 – the number of the devil. In the end we felt we needed to add further tracks to open and close the album, but that remained the core. We wanted to capture the feelings that we felt may have gone through the participants heads at the time, though we will never truly know. That would be a mix of excitement, fear, anger, rebellion, resignation and ultimately dread, insanity and confusion, building as it went. Old analogue synths have that organic quality that digital music doesn’t, which is why we used vintage synths almost exclusively on the album. There was very little sequencing involved, again to keep the human aspect to the music and avoid the pristine and robotic elements of some electronic music. Everything was either played by hand or using the synths built in arpeggiators, but not centrally controlled by a computer. That made it a nightmare for us to collaborate on tracks over distance (I am in the UK, Puppy38 is in Austria) but I’m glad we made the effort.
This track is intended as a scene setter, almost like dawn breaking, with its driving drum beat and soaring synth line. It builds the excitement without hinting what is to come.
This uses a few real cut ups from the experiment, set against morse code SoS blips and a throbbing heartbeat to symbolise the original concept of the experiment, but also act as a warning. It’s quite spooky actually, with the repeated refrain you can’t get out of your head after; “what happens if you put good people in an evil place”
Day 1: The Beginning
On August 15 1971 the ‘prisoners’ were arrested by local police, booked in and taken to the mock prison at Stanford University. The experiment was just beginning, so at this stage it must have seemed quite surreal to the participants. The track reflects that, being quite lush in comparison to what comes later.
Day 2: False Dawn
By Day 2 things were already hotting up. Guards were waking printers up with whistles and yells, prisoners were rebelling and being sprayed with fire extinguishers. Rather than go for a literal interpretation of that with a noisy, cacophonous track, we opted for more of a John Carpenter feel to the music. It builds as the day itself built and you definitely feel something is not right.
Day 3: Submission
By Day 3 the guards had split prisoners into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups to reward and punish behaviour. One prisoner had a breakdown and left the experiment early. It was getting intense in there so the track has nervy bubbling synths, eerie tones and distorted guitar to create a fraught and tense feeling. It works!
Day 4: Division
By this time the inmates had started to distance themselves from one another, with rioters believing that other prisoners were snitches and vice versa and blaming each other for punishments. Another inmate has to leave when it becomes too much for him. The music echoes that with a series of overlapping synth lines, using increasingly dark and ominous sounds set against a driving low fi drum beat.
Day 5: Visitation
The day was scheduled for visits by the friends and family of the inmates in order to simulate the prison experience. However, the guards made visitors wait for long periods of time to see their loved ones. Parents and peers raised serious concerns about how the prisoners were being treated and it was at this point it dawned on those running the experiment that it was slipping dangerously out of their control. The track really reflects that with an almost primal and guttural series of tones set against a heavily processed recording of one of the ‘inmates’ describing their experience, effectively bringing you into the claustrophobic reality of those taking part.
Day 6: Close To The End
By Day 6 it was all over. The experiment was ended, its participants de-briefed, and the mock prison dismantled. That was a shock to guards and prisoners alike. This had rapidly become their reality and now it was all over. The mental scars were deep though and the track reflects that, with clanging piano, guitar scrapes, and deep and pervasive synth undertones. It all sounds very filmic.
Day 6 merges into ‘Epilogue’ which covers the psychological effect on the participants and how the prison was real for those who took part and remained so mentally long after. Its hard to describe this track accurately, but we were really pleased by the way it works and is a powerful end to the album. There is always an aftermath to these things though, as those who bought the CD will discover if they are patient enough.
Stanford by Senestra is available now on Bandcamp and elsewhere