There's an old Senryu song, from 2006, called "The Inside of My Head Is a Cyclone," a tightly coiled ode to unrequited love delivered in a two-and-a-half-minute blast of garage rock, with the title phrase repeated over and over as the chorus. The band recently added the song back to their set list for a concert in Chapel Hill, N.C., marking the anniversary of the Enigma tornado outbreak on Feb. 19 and 20, 1884, when at least 50 tornados swept across the Midwest and Southeastern United States.
It's easy to imagine that "The Inside of My Head Is a Cyclone" is an accurate account of what it's like to be Wil Wright, the singer/guitarist/songwriter who's led Senryu since 2000. Wright's written, recorded, and released music under the Senryu name at a furious pace for a decade now, with five or six full-length albums, depending on how you count, and dozens of shorter records, most of them credited to Senryu, some just to Wright, and others to side projects like Skeleton Coast. The newest album, Inkling, is available this week, and Wright's already finishing up songs for the next Senryu album.
That relentless production schedule isn't necessarily the best approach for building a local audience, though. Senryu has fans in Knoxville—they draw reliable and enthusiastic audiences, first at all-ages shows at Old City Java and now primarily at Pilot Light—but they've had their most notable success outside of town.
"We love Knoxville best," Wright says. "We want Knoxville to be where we put on our best shows. We want the best for when we're here. We've struck gold elsewhere, but we want out best shows for home."
Wright's made valuable connections in the last few years through Senryu: the band opened for Dirty Projectors at the Knitting Factory in New York on New Year's Eve in 2007; they recently recorded a session for Daytrotter, an influential website based in Illinois that features short, off-the-cuff sets by up-and-coming bands; Wright is a touring member of the North Carolina band Physics of Meaning, led by Daniel Hart, who has played with St. Vincent and John Vanderslice; Senryu has played at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and they're headed back later this month; they're scheduled for the CMJ Music Marathon in New York in October; and Inkling includes a guest performance by Ariel Saldivar, who is an auxiliary member of Broken Social Scene.
But none of that has translated into a significant spot on the local music scene. They rarely play clubs that hold more than 100 people. They've never been invited to any of the big showcases for local bands like Sundown in the City or an opening spot at the Bijou Theatre. Part of that might be the band's familiarity—a lot of shows and a steady stream of releases can start to run together after a couple of years, and they've kept it up for a decade. Another part might be the idiosyncratic nature of the music, which is rooted in '90s and early '00s indie rock like Pavement and Modest Mouse but, especially recently, has flourishes of synth-pop, prog rock, and art rock. Senryu seems trapped in a lonely spot between long-running acts from the 1990s like Superdrag, Scott Miller, and Mic Harrison and more recent groups that seemed poised for big breaks like Royal Bangs, the Dirty Guv'nahs, and the now-defunct everybodyfields and Tenderhooks.
"A lot of people who came to see us in the beginning have gotten older and don't go to shows anymore," Wright says. "So we've had to overhaul. The audience we draw has a short attention span, so we've rebuilt it constantly. I hope that doesn't sound ungrateful—we have a strong and really affectionate following. But there are opportunities for growth in Knoxville."
Wright, 30, is the machine that drives Senryu, and has been since the beginning. He started playing guitar when he was 12. After learning a few basic chords he started writing songs, and almost immediately after that he started making tapes in his bedroom. Even now he doesn't really consider himself a musician so much as a songwriter; the instrument is just a tool for getting the songs in his head out into the world.
"I felt an almost similar, if not identical, response to my crappy boom-box recordings to what I do now," Wright says. "When I recorded it and listened to it, it felt right, and it's still very exciting to me to get it right."
Wright met Steven Rodgers in 1998, while they were members of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band at the University of Tennessee. Wright was playing occasional shows with friends and parties in Fort Sanders, and Rodgers drifted into his orbit. "We met during drum camp in July, and at some point he told me he was playing a show at Java," Rodgers says. "I went down, and the songs were interactive. I ended up playing on some plates or something."
By 2000, Rodgers and Wright had formed a consistent partnership with a rotating group of other musicians; Rodgers has been the only other constant in the band since 2002.
More than 20 different people have been credited on Senryu's official CDs. Even more people have played with the band in some capacity but never recorded with them. The lineup continued shifting until last year, when the McCormack brothers, guitarist/keyboardist Dan and bassist/percussionist Andres, officially joined the band.
"We were more friends of the guys than fans of the band, but being musicians, we started going to their shows and thought, ‘Hey, this is really cool,'" McCormack says. "We slowly started growing into it and offered our services. We saw [Wright's side project] Skeleton Coast, and I told Wil that I didn't think it needed any other instruments, but if he needed bass or drums to let me know, I'd totally do it."
Wright's planning a serious promotional push for Inkling. He recently hired a national publicist for the band, and they've sent copies of the new disc to more than 100 radio stations, newspapers, websites, and magazines around the country. They've recorded three videos, for the title track, "MORNINGKIDNIGHTKID," and the first single, "Obsess Much?" Senryu played at the WDVX Blue Plate Special earlier this week and have their official local release show for Inkling this weekend at Pilot Light. (The national release is scheduled for April.) Wright talks about the new disc as the culmination of the last few years of the band's development and maybe the start of a new stage for Senryu.
"This is the first release where we feel like we've really applied ourselves in a while," Wright says. "I'd like this to be remembered as a time when we really stepped up, in a way people can enjoy. The new members are fully acclimated enough to really be comfortable performing. They've got two recordings under their belts.
"I'm slowly trying to reinvent the band, like always."
But it's hard for a band that's been together for a decade to make a new impression. Wright's enthusiastic about the prospects for Inkling, but he's realistic, too. He's built a long-running band that mostly pays for itself—"We figure out how much we can do without going into the red further than we can recover from," Wright says—and compiled a massive catalog of records, met friends, played a bunch of shows all over the country, and spent most of his adult life with the band as his main priority. That's more than most people who start a band when they're 20 ever get out of it, and Wright figures the end will come eventually.
"I think about the end of Senryu all the time," he says. "I don't want it to surprise me, and I don't want it to happen gradually. I don't want it to turn into a joke. ... I try to be aware of the inevitability of it. Senryu's not everybody's whole life. But being aware of that helps us really get after it. It's easy to take something for granted if you don't think about the end of it. It could have ended three or four records ago. But as long as I get more and more satisfied with the records, the shows improve, and people rally around us, it seems like when it's time, it'll be obvious."