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Watching Westerns With The Sound Off: Actress interviewed

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  • published
    7 Feb 2014
  • words by
    Tom Lea
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At one point during my second interview with Actress, he admits that he “sees the world in a different way.”

Talk about an understatement. Within a few minutes of being in his front room, the endlessly-mythologised producer born Darren Cunningham, who has spent the last decade carving out a unique sound that blurs just about every line going under the name Actress, has referred to his copy of Matila Ghyka’s The Geometry of Art and Life. Despite only having advanced a handful of pages into the book in roughly five years, Cunningham claims that looking at everyday life – and music – in terms of its geometry, changed everything for him. You think of the artwork of Actress albums – always black and white, always sharp lines – and track titles like ‘Bubble Butts and Equations’, and things suddenly make sense.

It gets deeper. Half-way through our chat he moves from showing me pictures that inspire him on his iPhone (the most recent photo on it is a shot of his forthcoming cover feature in The Wire) to opening the notebook he travels with. It’s full of sketches, made whilst bored on flights and in hotel rooms, used as starting points for annotation, constantly revised and returned to until the geometry holds up. Further in, painstaking notes on the stems of a forthcoming remix spill across two pages.

When he’s not opening books, Cunningham keeps one hand on his Sky remote, flicking through channels. He hovers ambivalently over Harry Hill’s TV Burp, before a mention of black and white films gives him focus. “They’re just showing pure Westerns, all day on Film 4 and TCM at the moment”, he tells me, as he darts to the film page before settling on Winchester ’73. Cunningham used to fall asleep to black and white films at his nan’s house, and he’d watch them with the sound off. We hit mute and continue our conversation, while his dog, Missy, devours a slipper that’s been separated from the herd.

How was Berlin?

Still recovering from it. I played Friday night for CTM festival. It mashed me up – doing these things now just wipes me out for days. I should’ve been playing 2am til 4am, but I ended up playing 5am til 7am. I can’t do those sort of times, man. 

Do you think, if things had developed differently for you as a musician, that you could do that whole DJ lifestyle? Like travel every weekend, and really do the circuit?

Nah. When I first came to London that certainly would’ve been one of the things that I’d have loved to have done. I came to London around 1999, just before the millennium, and around that time I would’ve been well into it. Also, with me, I buy records all the time but they’re not like… Put it this way, I wouldn’t go out and bang 100 quid on a certain criteria of music, and I think you have to do that to sustain that sort of thing. I’m also not the sort of person, with Serato and stuff, to be chasing for files. I spend enough time in front of the computer to really get involved in that level. I think the people that do it are really dedicated to keeping on top of what’s happening now. I’m a bit too disconnected for that.

When I interviewed you before you made a point of saying that despite your outsider image you do keep up on stuff – listening to Rinse etc. Is that still the case?

I just catch things these days. For instance, I’m not a regular listener to NTS but if I’m on Twitter and somebody I like’s on it, I’ll tune in. In terms of new music that artists are making, I don’t think I look for it in the same way that I did when it was… the Myspace era, I guess. And pre-me being so active in terms of my own music.

Well Werk seemed like the priority over Actress at that point.

It wasn’t really, it’s just that it was less upfront. I was working on it with much more secrecy, and in a very different way to how I do it now, which is more exposed. I still manage to maintain some aspects of it, I think. I had to get a label manager just to balance off… I think the more I released myself, and the more I became exposed as an artist, the more I felt the need to move away from the label – to become an artist on my own label. I couldn’t have A&Red the label the way I did then, put it that way – I needed help.

What’s your relationship with press at the moment? It’s not like the internet’s flooded with Actress interviews but you’ve done quite a few now, and it’s never seemed like something you’re 100% comfortable with.

No, not really. I think the reason why that is is that, with my music, regardless of what the question is, I’ll never 100% be able to communicate the answer the way that I’d like. So it’s… Not pointless, but it’s superficial, and even in some respects artificial. Even today, my music’s so personal to me, and it’s based on pre-existing work that outdates any interest in what I do, all the way back to my university days. There’s a whole black hole, really, that can’t be investigated at this point. So I do [press], sometimes. I think doing interviews sometimes just makes sense, but other times it just doesn’t make sense at all.

“My mum’s said before that I’m an alien of some sort.”

What’s interesting about you though, is that you say you can’t put your music into words the way you’d like, but equally your music is very conceptual – you’ve said before that you always start with an idea or concept before the music gets made – so there must be some words about it already there.

I think so, definitely, but I’m a bit wary about it because [those ideas] aren’t fully-formed in my own mind. I’m not an academic. Academic people have a real way with expressing those sorts of things, but even though I definitely have these conceptual ideas, it’s very abstract. So rather than sounding po-faced, or trying to express something and not expressing it in the way that I’d like because I find it hard to communicate it, I tend to just sort of… not? 

I think there’s a big difference between doing press where it’s like ‘right, it’s press time, let’s do every single bit that’s available to me’, and speaking to certain people who garner, or reach in and pull out bits that you’re prepared to communicate – where it’s two-way, rather than just me spouting off. Doing this also helps me to bring it out of myself, and you know, communicate back to myself where this is all going.

What about the press releases for Ghettoville and R.I.P., which are quite descriptive and clearly things you’ve thought about for a while, and you’ve consciously put them out as both accompaniments to and explanations of the record? 

Well with the music, I’ve always been a bit like… I get how it’s made, and what happens on the computer, and so forth, but why are other people so forcefully connected to it? What is it about it that pulls us in at its core? That’s always been the thing for me – what is that force? I just needed to not deny it, I guess, and just think about the energy of it all, the pure energy.

I try to balance light with dark, and what is light to me is often very dark to somebody else, and vice versa. It’s that sun / moon balancing act.

You’ve said in a past interview that there’s a fine line between a soap opera and a real opera, and I think that’s always been there in what you do – there’s a balance between dark and night, it’s comedic and it’s serious, and in terms of how concepts play into your music, I suppose there’s a balance between instinct and method.

Yeah, I just try and balance everything off. And I try to be as honest as possible in terms of the reasoning behind it… and also to try and hold onto that zone of ‘this is your own work’. Because outside of that, when people take it, whether that’s through the record label, a shop, or whatever, that side of it is really disconnected to the way that it’s made.

That’s why I say it’s a cold process with me. A good review and a bad review are exactly the same to me, whereas to some people it’s the end of the world. I just want to make something that’s… inscrutable? Something that answers all the questions in my mind at that particular time. And once I finish writing it, I always have a weird feeling about it. I’ll think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, then the next day I’ll think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.

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