With Hazyville, Darren ‘Actress’ Cunningham made one of last year’s most compelling and rewarding albums.
The head of the Werk Discs record label, Cunningham spent four years working on Hazyville, his second solo release and his first full-length. Like a series of ghostly, monotone sketches that form in real time with the music, it took months to wrap my head around it – and to be honest, I still haven’t. But it’s the one album I heard last year that I can all but guarantee I’ll continue to play years down the line.
If there are in-depth interviews with Actress around, then they’re not easily accessible online. But Cunningham is one of the UK’s most fascinating musical figures: even aside from his own music, he’s built Werk Discs from a label that put out breakcore, techno and electro from a close-knit circle of friends to a peerless imprint that dwells on the borders of UK dance music, but really occupies a territory unto itself.
Werk Discs is currently in its album phase – the last three years have seen full-lengths by Disrupt, Lukid (twice), Zomby and Actress himself, and the next Werk LP, Lone’s forthcoming Friends and Ecstasy is sounding equally good in its current state of development. FACT got to hear Friends and Ecstasy, along with unreleased Actress material old and new, while interviewing Darren recently at his house in South Norwood. What follows are five extracts from the conversation that hopefully shed some light on the Actress story to date.
1: “I knew Hazyville was gonna be quite an esoteric recording. I knew it had to be true to what I was into really, and what I’ve always been into is Detroit techno”
It was four years after your first EP [No Tricks, on Werk Discs] when Hazyville came out. Was all that time spent making your debut LP?
“Well, after No Tricks I was naïve enough to think I’d finish the album within a few months. I started writing the album not long after releasing the EP, and at that particular time the label was still really young – I still was kind of unsure of exactly what I was doing, and I realised quite quickly that to be a producer and run a record label at the same time is a really difficult thing. I’m quite hyper-critical of myself anyway, and in terms of how long it took…well it took about four years to actually complete. A lot of that was laziness, a lot of that was other things…there were quite a few obstacles in writing the album, and I think that comes through in what you’ve got, in terms of it sounding quite dense, a foggy sound…”
“Yeah, hence the title. To be honest I didn’t expect much to come out of it…I knew it was gonna be quite an esoteric recording, I knew it had to be true to what I was into really, and what I’ve always been into is Detroit techno.
“In terms of electronic music that’s always been the angle I’ve come in at, and likewise with the clubbing element, so [Hazyville] had to be true to that, but at the same time it had to be UK. You know what I mean, it had to reflect my surroundings, and at the time I was writing in Brixton. I didn’t expect too much from it ’cause it was quite a personal project – a lot of personal things went into it; the titles give a few clues maybe. The colour of the music for it was quite monotone.”
Hence the cover art.
“Yeah, and I didn’t want to invest too much in myself too. Like the difference between a digipak and a jewel case for a small label is quite a big thing, and we’d already had Zomby come in which was quite a big thing for us; we’d invested a lot of time in that, and that was like, the buzz album. And then we had Lukid, and as that was his second album it was quite a achievement, and we wanted to put quite a lot into the packaging. And for me it was just a question of ‘it’s my first album, its quite abstract, its quite monotone, you know, let’s do something which is slightly understated [with the packaging]’.”
It’s funny, ’cause you say about monotone, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, a lot of the music I like is monotone, whether it’s your stuff or The Village Orchestra, or ambient metal. I don’t quite know how to put it together, but there are these separate artists that share a certain greyscale sound…
“Yeah, I’d never really thought about it like that before, but it may have even been something you’d written, talking about this monotone, grey-tone concept. And from an artist’s perspective it’s always interesting to get someone else’s perspective, because it’s all going through different brains and getting deciphered in different ways. I love black and white films. And once I read someone describe my stuff as The Avengers gone wrong, and I’m a huge Avengers fan, so it was quite mad having people reference these points, almost quite off-key, and me thinking ‘hang on, a lot of that must have gone into it actually’. But yeah, I was a little bit taken with the response to Hazyville. It was by no means a buzz album, I never expected that, but it seemed to make a little bit of an impact…”
When you talk about Detroit, what era of Detroit is it that particularly informs Actress?
“Put it this way, if I had the choice of recording on any Detroit label, it would be Metroplex, I think I’d be your Metroplex type artist. So you’re talking about your Terrence Dixon, Juan Atkins, Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir, I would say I’m definitely more aligned to that side of things ’cause they were really prepared to go way out there and experiment. I love Theo Parrish, I love his kicks, if I’d taken anything from him it’s trying to get those muffled kicks, those slightly woody kicks.
“I record on really minimal gear, but at the same time I’m always focused on trying to remove the music from the computer. I don’t want it to have a computer type sound, so people who listen to the album should be a bit bemused as to what it was made on; how it was made. ‘Cause it’s not really sequenced, I don’t sequence in the traditional form. There’s mistakes in there that I didn’t bother to take out. And over times I’ve noticed [with Metroplex] that sometimes the mix will be a little bit too hot, or there’ll be little mistakes, or something will be a little bit out of time; there’s always some kind of imperfection that makes it real, you know? At the same time I wanted to make something that was unusual. And you know when people go out to make something that’s very intentionally Detroit; the familiar sounds and chords, chord changes and stuff, I didn’t want to do that.”
The worst is when you get some dude from Europe trying so hard to be Detroit, to the point where they stick a vocal on top banging on about the city’s legacy or something.
“Yeah, it’s funny, but those tracks still sell quite well. I dunno what that says, maybe it says people miss Detroit. You have to listen very closely [to Detroit techno], it seems really simple on the surface, but when you try to practice with certain ideas, like I’ll try to copy a particular bassline, you find so many different layers to it, it goes so deep. So I’ve always held those guys up quite highly.”
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2: “The idea behind Actress comes down to…well, there’s certain elements of hiding behind a persona”
So how did the Actress thing start? I think the earliest thing most people know about you is the Hyperdub 130 club nights [a series of nights in the early part of this decade that involved Darren, Kode 9 and others]. Were you already producing as Actress at that point?
“Actress was…well, put it this way, I played my first live performance at a Hyperdub night which was at the ICA, and it was around the time that Steve [Goodman, Kode 9] was doing a lot of seminar based events. Quite academic, talking about things like Drexciya but going quite deep, mostly based around afro-futurism – which the night was also called. The idea behind Actress comes down to…well, there’s certain elements of hiding behind a persona, the gender-bending thing, there’s certain humorous elements applied to it as well…”
You reference the gender-bending in a few track titles… [‘Mincin’, ‘Cross Dresser’]
“Yeah, sometimes I’ve named tracks after it – I’m just playing around really, but I remember dressing up as Tina Turner for my mum and not being afraid to express myself, you know what I mean, under whatever guise. But on a deeper level, as an actress you go in and learn a part – like someone’s written a script for you, you learn the part and add different facets to it, you add your character to the role, and I suppose there’s an element of that as well. I feel that with the Thriller [Actress and Lukid’s loosely anonymous series of 12″s, the last two of which have been Actress solo] singles a lot of that is me rearranging stuff or bending it into what comes out of me. So it is playing a role; it’s playing the role of…again, going back to Detroit techno, I might add a Kevin Saunderson signature, add a bit of Juan Atkins’s signatures here and there, but again, it has to be from the heart – it has to have my character.
“But going back to the Hyperdub nights, that was around about 2001/2 – I was still at university, it was pre-Werk Discs. I remember I had this massive Kawai K5000 synthesizer, ’cause it was the only one I knew was really difficult to program and no one was really using, it was a real digital additive synth, but it was really heavy. I didn’t have a computer at the time, and I did the whole set off the keyboards and a mini-disc player with beats on it. And I’d say that a lot of the stuff on it, the ideas are there…I’d been very influenced by Carl Craig, I remember getting More Songs about Food and Revolutionary Art. I was listening to that a lot at the time, and I think the set was quite ethereal and pad-based, a lot of strings going on. Working alongside Steve was inspirational – he’s a guy I look up to, in terms of…he had a strong belief in terms of what he was into, and he wasn’t gonna deviate for anybody. And I watched him toil, a lot, in terms of getting Hyperdub up and running, but from when he started to where he is now, I’ve got a lot of respect.”
Yeah, it seems it’s only in the last few years that people have caught up, and started to join the dots that he was linking a while back.
“Yeah I think that’s fair to say. I think he did it in the right way, he researched it back to front, and he got people talking about it. It was a strain, it was a kind of virus for him, and he implanted the whole idea like a virus and it kind of exploded like a virus. So it’s always good to see how a concept can work, how it can be formed and how it progresses afterwards. But the fact that he was really into what I was doing then says a lot as well.
“The only stuff I’ve ever released has been on Werk. A lot of my early stuff was very deranged. I didn’t have an outlet to put it out. At that time I still wanted to do a label, but even then I recognised that was very far in the distance, and I couldn’t see any other labels that would put it out. I did send a 12″ to Underground Resistance, which contained ‘Ghosts Have A Heaven’, which has just been released [on Prime Numbers], I sent that to them in about 2000 but didn’t get a response. I was doing stuff that was quite abstract, so I wasn’t sure how well it would go down.”
3: “I can disappear in Drexciya all day”
“Drexciya were a massive inspiration to me – I can disappear in Drexciya all day. It’s the mythology; making music that sounds like the world that they’re supposed to be from, and Hazyville is exactly that – I admire any artists who can create a world and create music that’s part of that world…”
What were your original aims when you started Werk?
“Well when I was at university one of the things I studied was based on the social enterprise work of Underground Resistance, I did a lot of research into them, and that was quite influential in terms of how the label came about, and the grand identity was always something that had to be strong from the start. We knew that we wanted it to be quite Germanic, we knew that we had to be different from everybody else – that was always our intention, and we had to do something that was against the rulebook. We did nights without publicising the acts, we just felt that people were too spoilt. They were always given exactly what was going on, where they wanted it, and then you got people who’d just check the hype. We always tried to do things that engineered a certain vibe, and by doing less we made sure we had people who really wanted to be there.”
“The parties that we put on; for an experimental electronic night, the vibes were like no other that I’ve experienced. We didn’t want chin stroking conventions, we wanted girls out on the dancefloor, we wanted people dressing decent – decent fashion without it being pretentious. So yeah, right from the start we knew that because we were dealing with experimental music we didn’t want just blokes there.”
You didn’t want an IDM crowd.
“Exactly, we wanted people interested in the music, and interested in the production values, definitely, but the whole point of what were were doing was to have a party. And I think people who came to our nights always felt they were at the source, or on the cusp of what would become quite big. Like we were the first guys to get Modeselektor to the UK, we were the first people to put on Dabrye. We always prided ourselves on trying to pre-empt things, and trying to be a step ahead. That runs throughout – up to the label now, the same ethos runs through the label.”
So how did it evolve from putting out music from quite a close-knit group of friends to putting out stuff from say, Starkey?
“Well at the point of releasing Starkey I was running the label by myself. Me and Gavin started the club nights together, we did the first compilation together and we did the first 12” together, and we did my project together. We did the Grim Dubs series together, but around that time you start to look at things and think ‘how do you survive on a record label?’ It’s so up and down, to have a business based on taste – people liking what yr doing – is hard, there’s no A-B-C routes. There’s no guarantees. And I think at this time I was a little bit of a bum, I was always working, my expertise is in post-production TV work, but I decided to leave – I had to give the record label a go. And to do that you have to invest a lot, you cant expect someone who’s got quite a decent job to drop it all to run a label. So at that time it became more my passion to give the label a go than it was Gavin’s. So from Grim Dubs onwards its been me by myself. It was hard.
“There certainly reached a point in the evolution in the label, where I’d just come off the back of the Grim Dubs, and I thought I wanna soften the harshness of the label. I want to be able to show that yeah, we can release mad bouncy club music that’s quite distorted or whatever, almost breakcore to a certain extent, but I also wanted to provide the full spectrum of what it was that I was into.; giving a bit more of my character to the record label, and then the first Lukid record…”
That was like the turning point.
“Yeah, definitely. It just came at the right time, the first demos I received from him, they were from someone who knew what he was doing but wasn’t quite confident yet. And just needed a bit of time, needed to know he had backing, but also time to work on stuff. We developed that Lukid record, interacting back and forth, for about a year before it was ready to come out, and that’s been the pattern ever since. We don’t run like a normal record label; it’s more like a production company. We don’t release to satisfy consumption. And the stuff we release is quite heavy, so we do feel we need to put stuff out and then take a break; give people some time with it. You treat it honestly, and put your full effort into the artists, and I think off the back of that what you find is you have a project that gives you more satisfaction, and one where the artists feel that you’ve put a lot into it.”
With that change in direction for the label, was that a reflection of the way your musical tastes were changing?
“Definitely – before I even got the Lukid material I was thinking the label needed a CD. It was all good releasing 12″s, but I wanted to put out an album people could put into their CD deck and listen to. I was getting tired with the whole breakcore thing, and it was definitely a time where I felt we need to change it up. Show we’ve got a bit of imagination as regards what we do musically. Lukid was pre-all this beats stuff really – when things really got concentrated on this beats scene, he was pre-all that. I would say me and Luke [Lukid] are the core of the label, you can’t tie Zomby down – he doesn’t belong to anybody. As far as him being someone‘s artist; that doesn’t really exist with him.
“But me and Luke, we get on on so many levels. He’s a bit of a Charlie Brown character [laughs] he doesn’t really say that much, he’s a young guy. But in all seriousness, when it comes to making music, it’s a serious thing for us. It’s not fun. Writing Hazyville was torture, pure turmoil, and I’m sure Luke’s fought a few demons – certainly in Foma [Lukid’s second album], he went into darker places. With the Thriller stuff; I don’t want to attach that to Werk at all – it’s more a chance for us to practice, try different things that we could maybe apply to albums later on. I don’t think Werk is a DJ’s record label really. Obviously DJs play our stuff, but because we don’t release regularly it’s never gonna be one of these things where people always buy our stuff. It’s always in the back of our minds that we need to come with something that’s quite unique.”
“Each of the artists we’ve put out have their own character. With Cloaks, maybe you could compare them to Vex’d, but that wouldn’t play because they’re completely analog, which in dubstep is all but unheard of, and they’re noise-based – like they’re not messing about, this is proper noise man, on a Wolf Eyes tip. Jan [Disrupt]…spacey, 8bit, had that commentary running through it that was funny in parts, philosophical in parts. His character’s all over the record; his honesty, when you’re looking at records I think that should be the first thing that jumps out; the artist’s identity. I also think ‘are they too similar to this artist? Are they just going to get pushed into that scene?’ I think each of the artists we’ve put out stand up on their own terms.”
So Lone [‘s forthcoming 12″ and album Friends and Esctasy] is coming next, right?
“Yeah, Lone’s the next thing. Everything’s a big thing for us, we kind of treat everything like a movie production really – I’ve already touched on the fact we treat development as the main thing, we spend a lot of time on that, getting the sequencing right, there’s usually a lot of back and forth between me and the artist. Lone’s 12″ is next, then the album, then we’ve got something with Sensational [Jungle Bros MC], it’s him doing some stuff with Nochexxx, who used to produce as Ascoltare.” [note: check out his fantastic B E A M album from 2007]
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4: “You shouldn’t really be able to decipher what it is that I’m doing, ’cause I don’t really have a clue myself”
“At the moment I don’t know if the next Actress album is gonna come out on Werk. As a producer on the label I have to be more ambassadorial than the other artists; I feel as if I have to fly the flag in different scenes. There are other labels that have expressed an interest in putting it out, so it’s quite likely I’ll do something on a different label, in a different scene, in a different country, so I can push my sound in different areas…”
Are you already working on the new Actress album?
“Yeah. I’m pretty far down the road to a new album. It’s a bit more dubby, a bit more danceable…
“A lot of my stuff is freestyled – I record it on the fly. I don’t have a working process if I’m honest with you, I feel a bit weird ’cause everyone I know has some sort of process, but I don’t, other than sitting down with some sounds. Sometimes I go to records, with no real idea what record I want to pick out – I just take one and see what comes out of it. It’s really just got to be about being quite…personal…almost selfish to a certain extent, and seeing if people can go with it.”
Do you get quite deep into making tracks?
“Yeah man, seriously deep into it. Like don’t disturb me if I’m making tunes, I’ll come out [of the studio] and I’ll be totally dazed from it all, like holed up in a room – just holed up, standing up dancing, sitting down, not really doing anything, just listening to a loop for four hours straight, not really arranging anything. I think my music’s quite subliminal to be honest with you, and it should play on distance rather than be at the forefront…you shouldn’t really be able to decipher what it is that I’m doing, ’cause I don’t really have a clue myself! But it does get really deep…”
How long do your sessions last for?
“The session never really ends. Like on the odd occasion I’ll go in with an idea that’ll finish pretty quickly but mostly it evolves: it evolves over time, and before I know it I’ve got something. A lot of it is just going with simple ideas, like this [referring to the new Actress material playing] is just capturing chords, it was quite hissy but now it’s not, so the recording changes throughout.”
There’s that vibe to your tracks – especially the longer ones, where it’s like you see the ideas forming in front of you. It really applies to that Various Productions remix.
“Yeah, I think that’s…again, I don’t think I’m the sort of artist who can just sit down and create something. More often that not its freestyled; loose, it’s extreme escapism.”
The titles seem to allude to a lot of personal reference points…
“Yeah, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t there. I like the idea of attaching words to how something sounds to me, ’cause then it makes sense, and I don’t think I’m going completely mad. So when someone reads the title and then listens to the music it should kind of make sense. I don’t want to give too much away…but Hazyville was a very personal album; during the writing of that I lost my nan, who I was very close to. Ivy May Gilpin was her name, and one of the tracks is obviously…I dunno. I just wanted to make sure her name was in circulation; I didn’t particularly want everyone to know she was my nan or anything like that, but I wanted her name out there ’cause she was a special person. Hazyville the title was decided quite late, I had a title already – Conquest of Machine and Voice, in Latin – so it was quite a dramatic thing, but over time it became like, this mad world that was past memories of childhood and stuff. I’m quite a nostalgic person, right down to the black and white films, so that should run quite heavily through my music.”
“What I put myself through in terms of writing music is pretty brutal at times, I have to say. I will literally – literally – be listening to the same loop over and over again, over and over again…”
5: “I’m like ‘oh, so there are programs for this’…and I just caught the bug from there”
“I used to be a professional footballer, but I had to stop because of a bad injury I received. The whole reason I moved to London was because my career had been cut short. Football was the thing for me, but I remember when I picked up my first injury I picked up a pair of turntables, and just stuck to my garage, in my plaster, figuring out how to mix. I started buying a few records – I picked up on techno straight away; this guy was recommending me stuff on the shuffling tip, like I got into Surgeon at quite an early point. Then I discovered Hard to Find Records, and it was like having a library of deleted stuff available. I’d be coming out with ten records at a time, like old Chicago stuff. Then I heard Daft Punk do their Essential Mix on Radio 1, and that for me was pivotal. I remember hunting down the tracklisting, buying every single record that they played. That was the first time I heard techno being mixed with Jimi Hendrix and stuff, I was like ‘damn, okay, they’re doing this on live radio – they’re really pushing it’. And that told me to not be afraid to mix it up.”
“Then I remember going to my first festival, it was Tribal Gathering, Daft Punk were there along with all the Detroit guys – like I saw Jeff Mills playing for the first time. And I’m like hang on, I’ve just started learning how to mix and this guy’s mixing every third seconds, throwing records around. Then seeing Kraftwerk…it just exploded from there for me.”
How old were you then?
“I was fifteen. I didn’t really understand the concept of playing live, and I’m seeing these guys get up in front of computers, and synths, and I couldn’t comprehend it. I remember seeing a documentary on Shy FX around about the time that ‘Original Nuttah’ was coming out, and they showed the whole process of making the track, and getting Apache Indian in, and touring it round all the back-ends of the UK, like Wolverhampton [where Cunningham is originally from] and stuff. And I’m like ‘oh, so there are programs for this’…and I just caught the bug from there.”
“So I started DJing at house parties around Wolverhampton when I met this guy Matt. I’d been playing like some Kevin Saunderson or something, then some Kenny Larkin, and he came up to me like ‘yo’…because not a lot of people in that area were on those sort of vibes. He was an aspiring musician, and he had some kit, and so I ended up going round his – he had a groove box, a mixer, a little effects pedal, and he was making really nice techno music. But then he went to university, and went travelling, and sold me his studio. That’s where it all started really; I’ve still got some of that equipment to this day.”
When the injuries started to make you reconsider your footballing career, was music the obvious second path then?
“What became clear was that whether I was going to be a sportsperson or a musician, I had to give it 100%. I didn’t really take the music seriously ’til then, because I was 100% into the football, but then it was like ‘okay, I’ve got to launch myself into this 100% instead.’ And that’s still how it is now.”