A conversation with Randall Sena


    We spoke with Randall Sena about growing up as a spiritual outsider, the current culture of false positivity, how education leads to gnarly freedom and how the nighttime reveals a world without context.

    I often look at things from more than one perspective at a time, which seems to be interpreted as pessimism in the current culture of false positivity.


    Morgan Enos

    I think one of many reasons we’re friends is because we both grew up in the same religious community in a culturally isolated area. Among the ways it all changed my personality, it kind of instilled a mistrust of the modern world and what people get worked up about every day, online or otherwise. What do you think? Do you think your upbringing enabled you to see the entire forest, so to speak?

    Randall Sena

    Yes, being raised by parents who were Jehovah’s Witnesses established a strange precedent; that one should always approach this world from the perspective of the outsider and should remain outside of the world while living in it. This isn’t unique to JWs, but without the strong traditions of other religions, it left me feeling really disconnected. Later when I studied Judaism, I found myself outside of that tradition, too, because I wasn’t really Jewish. But, as Terence McKenna says, “The cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation.”


    I’m a little bit of an environmental person, personally. I can feel very out of my element in certain situations and I spiral a little bit. Do you share that attribute? Beyond that, do you consider yourself to be a mostly positive or negative human being? How so?

    If there’s one thing I like about myself, it’s that it makes no difference to me where I am physically. I’m fine with any place. Though I tend not to like places that seem to have no history. Regarding my outlook, I think I see things pretty objectively. I often look at things from more than one perspective at a time, which seems to be interpreted as pessimism in the current culture of false positivity.


    We’ve spoken at length about Kurt Cobain and what he meant to you as a young man, and today. As a music teacher, do you try to impart that sense of gnarly freedom to your students?

    I feel like my familiarity with Kurt’s work gives me tools and techniques other teachers do not have access to, though it’s hard for me to define.

    I think you have to know more than the audience, and sometimes that means knowing when to be dumb.


    Speaking of Kurt, I’m very interested in how people can kind of be divided into “influential” and “non-influential.” They wrote books about Miles Davis and Lou Reed not only for their accomplishments, but also that they had extremely memorable personalities. What do you think separates the ordinary from the truly special?

    Education. The three people you mentioned were highly and uniquely educated. They understood what had come before, and how to utilize existing information. I think what makes many “artists” today so mediocre is that they have no sense of what has preceded them, and therefore no sense of how to further the story. It’s disgusting to me to be uneducated in the age of the pocket-sized supercomputer. I think you have to know more than the audience, and sometimes that means knowing when to be dumb. Everyone draws from the well, but not everyone adds to it.


    Where did your interest in taking an active part in your community come from? Do you think that problems are best solved on a local level, or should we take a “helicopter view” to really fix what’s rotten about the world?

    I don’t believe we can fix the world, or that life on Earth can improve indefinitely through politics, technology, or art. But I am compelled by a sense of duty, and I believe that we can create a temporary environment for ourselves to flourish in. And I’ve found that that kind of selfish act can have residual benefits for those around us.


    It seems like a lot of your music is focused on stripping elements away rather than building them up. Your album A Form of Prayer is very rich-sounding, but interesting things are completely gone – hi-hats, extraneous words, excessive tracks. Would you agree?

    Yes, I am interested in what’s there when we stop the chatter. I want my music to be like an essential oil. I try to distill my thoughts till they have healing qualities, even if I am the only one being healed. To my pleasant surprise, my most individualized statements have had the greatest resonance with my small listenership.

    I feel like maybe the world is destroyed by day and repaired each night. I like to imagine I’m part of the ongoing restoration process.


    Can you tell me about some of the things you’ve learned in your studies of Jewish wisdom? Though you weren’t brought up in this background, what personally strikes you about this ancient belief system?

    I think what I was drawn to were the ideas that actions are more important than beliefs and beliefs must be made into actions, and that G-d wants us to be in state of continual education. Which meant there’s no shame in asking when you don’t know something. You can ask your Rabbi anything, and there are answers and multifaceted reasons for everything in Judaism. I was first drawn to early Hasidic stories. Reading the stories has a transformative effect on the reader. Here’s a favorite that resonates with the idea of the outsider and punk rock:

    q Once, the great Hasidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.

    q “Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”

    q “The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

    q The followers were puzzled. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

    q Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'”

    q His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”

    q “And I have learned,” Zusia sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

    q One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”

    q “They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’

    q They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?'”


    We’ve talked about the BBC documentary HyperNormalisation, and how a lot of social and political events have been distilled into kind of a performance or show with the advent of the Web. I think it gives people a false sense of knowledge or morality when the Topic of the Week rolls around — “I’m very concerned about wedding cakes and police brutality today!” I don’t even know if I’m explaining this well, but do you think that’s a common thing we fall for?

    Yes, I understand. Makes me think of this: “Things are going to slide / slide in all directions / won’t be nothing / nothing you can measure anymore / the blizzard / the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold / and it’s overturned the order of the soul.”

    And, these excerpts from a letter from Hunter Thompson written after JFK was assassinated:

    “…We now enter the era of the shitrain…Neither your children nor mine will ever be able to grasp what Gatsby was after. No more of that. You misunderstand it of course, peeling back the first and most obvious layer…

    …This is the end of reason, the dirtiest hour in our time… No matter what, today is the end of an era. No more fair play. From now on it is dirty pool and judo in the clinches. The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency…

    …The only hope now is to swing hard with the right hand, while hanging on to sanity with the left. Politics will become a cockfight and reason will go by the boards. There will have to be somebody to carry the flag.”


    Finally, you’ve described some of your music as being meant to be “played at night.” What energy occurs at night that affects you? Have you always been a late riser and a nocturnal sort of creature?

    Yes, I’ve always been a night bird. At night, the structure and routine breaks down, and it’s revealed to be a world without context. I feel like maybe the world is destroyed by day and repaired each night. I like to imagine I’m part of the ongoing restoration process.

    Thank you.


    Conversation: 84
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: December 7, 2017
    Total questions: 9
    Word count: 1449
    Reading time: Five minutes
    Hyperlinks: 5


    Connection: Tradition
    Education: Transformative
    Duty: Crucial
    Day: Destruction
    Sanity: Alienation
    Actions > Beliefs
    Perspective > Pessimism
    Night bird: Sena


    About the subject

    Randall Sena is a singer, songwriter, music teacher, recording engineer and community leader. He owns and operates Certain Sparks Music in Lompoc, CA.

    About the curator

    Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.

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