Recording as Actress, Darren Cunningham has become one of the 21st century’s most fascinating electronic artists. Cryptic to the last, his latest album Ghettoville comes with a press release that alludes to it being his final album as Actress. FACT’s Tom Lea explores the clues that Actress leaves in his music and interviews to shed some light on where his music comes from, and what makes it work.
When reading about Actress, the same words crop up over and over again. One is peerless, which is loosely fair: although there are acts that predate Actress that he does sound like (the most obvious one being Terrence Dixon, a Detroit producer who Actress openly reveres), his sound is largely one of his own, and most modern-day techno producers who deliberately clip their work and coat it in fog do sound in thrall to him. The others, however, refer to the mystery behind Actress. And while it’s true that Actress is an artist who doesn’t like to give everything away, he leaves enough clues (in both his track titles, his DJ sets and his interviews, which aren’t ubiquitous but aren’t exactly rarities either at this point) to give a committed listener insight to the man behind the project.
It’s logical to start at the beginning, but also in this case useful. Actress’s first album Hazyville took a while to sink in: it was covered upon release in magazines like FACT and Resident Advisor, but mostly due to what Werk had already released that year – well-received albums by Lukid and Zomby. Released in late 2008, it wasn’t until 2009 that people seemed to pick up on the fact that Hazvyille was the special album of the three, and Actress’s debut EP No Tricks (2004) had completely flown under the radar of most. Listening back to No Tricks now, however, it’s arguably Actress’s most honest record: a less clouded, less cryptic blend of some of the under-acknowledged influences on his music. Hip-hop is a key one (mostly obviously on ‘Credit Da Edit’, but there’s also, say, the Busta Rhymes sample on ‘Bassline FM’), while ‘Bassline FM’ uses a fast electro template to tribute UK soundsystem culture. When I interviewed Actress in 2009, he explained that although people think he’s an outsider (and it’s a reputation that he’s quite happy to play up to, living in deep South London) he’s more tapped into new music than people think, regularly listening to pirate radio and new records outside his own sphere (believe it or not, he was listening to Major Lazer at the time).
No Tricks is an anomoly in Actress’s catalogue because it doesn’t primarily sound like Actress. Future Actress albums definitely sound like other acts (very deliberately in Splazsh‘s case – more on that later), but they’re always filtered through Actress, where as listening to No Tricks without knowing its creator’s identity, you’d probably pick out Drexciya, Aphex, Ragga Twins and even Soundstream as reference points before you would Actress.
It’s Hazyville (originally titled Machine and Voice), and the records that circulate Hazyville (Actress’s remix of Various Production’s ‘Lost’ and Prime Numbers single ‘Ghosts Have a Heaven’, an early version of which featured on a demo that Actress sent to Underground Resistance in 2000) that mark the start of that Actress sound. When I interviewed him, “I could disappear in Drexciya all day” was a quote that was picked up on by readers, but it’s the disappearing that matters more than the Drexciya. When Actress produces, he told me, he gets into a trancelike state where hours turn into days – he loses all track of time when he’s in that production headspace, or at least tries to (“I don’t have pre-ideas, I have ideas after I’ve done the track. These pictures start to emerge”, he later told The Guardian). Much of Hazyville was made on headphones (due to neighbour problems) in a small Brixton flat, a situation that explains a) how long the album took to make, b) the itchy, frustrated feel of much of it, and c) its narrow sound compared to the later Splazsh. I don’t just mean narrow in a technical sense (i.e. less panning), but it’s not introspective and naval-gazing either – instead, it’s an album that’s constantly looking inwards to shut out the outside. It looks inwards as a reaction rather than an indulgence, which helps to explain why, for many, it’s the most relatable record from Actress’s catalogue.
It’s also, perhaps, the most open in terms of its titling. Hazyville itself is a reference to “it sounding quite dense, a foggy sound … there were quite a few obstacles in writing the album … over time it became this mad world that was past memories of childhood and stuff”. Actress, who used to work in film, is also a “nostalgic” black and white film fan, which goes some way to explaining the monotone feel of both its sound and artwork. ‘Ivy May Gilpin’ is a reference to one of those obstacles: it’s the name of his grandmother, who died while he was making Hazvyille. ‘Mincin’ also continues the theme of gender-bending that crops up several times in early Actress (No Tricks contains a track titled ‘Cross Dresser’). “The idea behind Actress”, he explained, “there’s certain elements of hiding behind a persona, the gender-bending thing … I’m just playing around really, but I remember dressing up as Tina Tuner for my mum and not being able to express myself, you know, under whatever guise.” It’s funny to think that Actress may have been the start of this recent trend for male producers to adopt female names (Sophie, Georgia Girls, Lucy, etc).
Unlike Hazvyille, Splazsh was started and finished in Actress’s home studio in South Norwood. It’s a brighter, wider and more fun album, in part due to a loose concept that binds its tracks. Several (possibly all) of the tracks are direct studies of older songs, something that Actress and I were supposed to discuss in a feature on Splazsh that never saw completion. It’s something that Actress has also done on his Thriller 12″s with Lukid (‘Freak for You’, from Thriller 003, is a clear lift of this) and although I think it kills a little of the fun to reveal which Splazsh tracks are studies of what, let’s just say that the clues are often in the titles: ‘Get Ohn – Fairlight Mix’ is a reference to Peter Gabriel, and it shouldn’t be hard to figure out which synth-pop group ‘Always Human’ is a direct study of. “As an actress you go in and learn a part”, as Actress puts it, “someone’s written a script for you, you learn the part and add different facets to it, you add your character to the role … A lot of that is me rearranging stuff or bending it into what comes out of me. So it is playing a role … 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 it has to have my character.”
If Splazsh and Thriller find Actress forcing synth-pop, techno and more through his fog machine to create a cohesive aesthetic, then his DJ sets around this time were anything but. He could start a set playing grime and then hand-brake turn into The Prodigy, or follow half an hour of charcoal techno with Daft Punk (it’s worth noting that for all his debt to Detroit, hearing Daft Punk’s Essential Mix was a crucial moment for Yung Actress, and even ties into his chaotic DJ sets: “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.”). I’ve seen Actress’s DJ sets go both ways (to be honest, give me the confrontational live show I saw him perform at Cable in 2011 over any of them), but his FACT mix from 2009, “a colour reel of 21st century pillow talk, diss records and Alan Partridge funk”, is worth seeking out: a) because it’s a lot of fun, and b) because with Terrence Dixon, Boards of Canada, Prince, Aphex Twin and Cat Stevens in its tracklist, it provides a neat influences checklist for Actress nerds.
Reading some pieces on Actress, it’s easy to get the impression that he’s some kind of po-faced nomad, as if this isn’t a good-looking, well-dressed ex-footballer (he was on West Brom’s books) who names tracks ‘Bubble Butts and Equations’, refers to himself as Dazzle and tweets almost as much bullshit as the rest of us. Actress’s records might be cryptic, but like Skull Disco, if you can’t see the humour in them then you’re not paying enough attention. Third album R.I.P., however, is his loftiest. On the surface, at least. Read the album’s press release, and it seems to be high-brow stuff: openly influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost, the album “follows a biblical structure, beginning with the Ascension and ending with the writing on the wall”.
In a Guardian interview, published after R.I.P.‘s release, Actress wonders: “When it’s time for me to leave this planet and I stand at the gates of heaven, and they’re like, ‘Well, what do you have to give us, Darren, why should we let you through here?’ I’ll be like, ‘I tried to write something, and here it is.’” It’s there in the album’s track titles, too: ‘Uriel’s Black Harp’, ‘Holy Water’, ‘Serpent’, ‘Shadow from Tartarus’, ‘Tree of Knowledge’, ‘Caves of Paradise’. But here’s what’s curious about R.I.P.: despite, musically, being Actress’s most grand-sounding album (made with new equipment, and in a new studio space in East London – “it’s got two large windows, which I never had in my home studio … it’s a lot more open, it’s less boxed in, less closed”, he told Dummy‘s Ruth Saxelby), and certainly being his most conceptual, it’s in some ways his most user-friendly. There’s less fog than on previous albums, and tracks are much shorter. There’s a strange combination of the impenetrable and the unassuming to R.I.P. – an album that blurs the lines between symphonies and sketches; scribbles and scriptures; bubble butts and equations. ‘The Lord’s Graffiti’ indeed, or as Actress puts it (again, in Dummy) “There’s a fine line between a soap opera and a proper opera … I can be kind of half and half in both camps sometimes because half of the time I’m just laughing to myself.”
Which takes us to Ghettoville, the album that might be Actress’s last. An accompaniment to Hazyville that’s been promised for years, its press release refers to it as the “conclusion of the Actress image”. “Where the demands of writing caught the artist slumped and reclined, devoid of any soul”, it continues, “four albums in and the notes and compositions no longer contain decipherable language … a fix is no longer a release, it’s a brittle curse. Zero satisfaction.” Whether the album is truly Actress’s last remains to be seen: in a new interview with Rod Stanley, he talks of his “retirement”, but seems to be referring to concluding the Actress project rather than retiring full stop (depending on who you believe, he already has a new release out under a different name). It does feel like a tying up of loose ends though, and one that’s typically Actress: no grand finale here, just a long walk through a purgatory of twisted metal and cooled lava.
“A big part of this album is about homeless people, in a way”, Actress claims. “Drug addicts, broken down … I often wonder how people have got there, and what they’ve experienced. Or what they’ve ignored.” If Hazyville was light refracted through mist and Splazsh was the Human League refracted through Actress (arguably the same thing), then the light on Ghettoville is obscured by smoke. It’s still there, though: ‘Our’ is similar to to No Tricks‘ ‘Flim’-esque ‘Giid’, while ‘Gaze’ (a revision of Thriller’s ‘Point and Gaze’) and ‘Frontline’ are just lovely – excuse the glibness. As the album reaches its conclusion, its feel shifts from mechanical to human with the introduction of lyrics (Machine and Voice, remember?): “don’t stop love music” on ‘Don’t', “wrap yourself around me” on ‘Rap’, and contorted hip-hop verses on the playful ‘Rule’. Actress has questioned whether things are ever truly light or dark before (“We live in a light and dark world. You wake up in the morning and it’s light; you go to bed and it’s dark”). How like him to close his final chapter with a wink.