Watching Westerns With The Sound Off: Actress interviewed
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.
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.
Do you find it hard to put a full stop on a project? To reach a point where you can be like ‘OK, I’ve worked on this for enough time – it’s an album’.
It does depend. Splazsh was the easiest album to write. I’d already started writing it when Hazyville came out, and it was pretty fully-formed in my mind. This one was much more fraught. There was a tipping point where I was like OK, I can either be really delicate with this or I can really push it over the edge, and do things with it that… people find unlistenable, honestly. But that’s part of the contrast. And if you buy the vinyl, then something that might sound collapsed and not really there… all you need to do is adjust the pitch and it becomes a completely different track, you know? It was those kind of mechanisms that were interesting me throughout the entire thing – that something isn’t always how you see it. You can always manipulate it to become something else. I mean that’s what hip-hop was born on.
I don’t think you can do that if you’re worried about how people will respond. Doing things like that is about being an artist. It took me a while to really take the jump on that level. I’m not trying to say that like ‘I’m an artist mate, of course’…
But it’s your vision, and I guess you have to build up the self-belief to ride for it. Was that hardest with Hazyville? It’s the album you took the longest on.
It was easier with Hazyville because I didn’t have those things in my mind. I had one laptop, which I’d already collected a load of sounds on. I was using Reason which is a very instant piece of software. All I had to do was load up sounds and mess around until I had something I was happy with – that’s the way that I was working. It was all based on how those sounds were recorded, and that’s how I stumbled on this strange, grey sound, because all the things that I’d sampled were different bitrates, sampled from different sources, and so to put them together you had to work in a way which balanced them against each other – EQing to the point where it lost its original form. All of a sudden, I had this marble-ish effect, and that’s why I got so into it – it wasn’t just dark, it felt like those black and white films that I was really into, and that’s where I wanted to get to. It was really cool working that way.
Do you still consider what you do greyscale?
Yeah, I do. It’s only tunes like ‘Hubble’ and ‘Maze’, tunes where I’ve used tone, that punch outside of that, or add a little bit of colour. I still think my tunes operate in that purply… dark matter zone? If it’s not grey it’ll be a purple or a blue.
I suppose there’s balance there, again – with grey landscapes, they could be dusk or they could be dawn… it could be fog or it could be mist, or smoke. Do you still watch a lot of black and white films?
Yeah, all the time. It’s something I got from my nan – I used to spend a lot of time with her when I was younger, and I’d sit there and watch black and white films. I found it so therapeutic, I always used to fall asleep to them. It was like walking through the door of a different world. I just watch them on silent, sometimes.
There’s no doubt that I see the world in a different way. My mum’s said before that I’m an alien of some sort. I’m not, but I have always seen the world in a different way, and I’ve always drawn. And I’ve always been able to understand art. If somebody puts a piece of art in front of me, even as a child, I’ve been able to understand it… maybe not deeply, but I was able to understand the idea, from the artist’s perspective.
Do you find making music fun? You’ve said to me before that you find it a torturous process, and it still sounds like you work yourself very, very hard. Some of the notes you’ve shown me are exhausting just to read.
It’s much more work [than fun] these days. Around the time of Hazyville I was clubbing a lot more, and just making tunes… But then it hits you, and you realise that there is a deeper meaning to all this. It may not be of any interest to anybody else, but it’s of interest to me because this is what I do. So I need to get down to the source of what I do, and why it interested me so much in the first place. Then you listen to other artists, and that confirms it even more to you. It’s unique to the individual, obviously, for some people it comes naturally and they don’t have to go through the processes that I go to to get ideas.
You have to have a belief in what you’re trying to do, and the belief that If you have an idea, there’s always a way to get to that idea. It might take you forever, but there is a way, and if you stick with it long enough, diligently and honestly enough, then you’ll find a way. That’s what drives me on, really. To be able to apply my music in that way, to me, is exciting. I would never have thought about that five years ago, and when I was at university that stuff was boring to me, simply because I didn’t understand it. I was being taught about Xenakis, and it went right over my head. What, he made stupid noises out of cymbals? Put something else on. It didn’t interest me, and it didn’t interest me because all I heard was [makes stupid noise]. No, I wanna hear form, I wanna hear structure, I wanna hear elasticity, and I wanna hear meaning. I suppose that’s why when I first heard Autechre I was like ‘OK, it’s got all those crazy sounds but I’m into it.’ Then I started trying to make Autechre tunes, but I was nowhere near. And I guess that’s where all of this comes from, wanting to do something but not being able to do something, so having to find a different way to do it.
With Ghettoville‘s press release in mind, do you feel that this journey – to the essence, to the geometry of Actress – is reaching its conclusion?
I think it’s reached a conclusion in its current state, definitely. I think it concludes a chapter. But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop, that’s a ludicrous idea. That said, I do feel like that sometimes, day to day. People need to hear that from me, I suppose, that is the reality. That’s part of it, to me – part of the comedy, part of the drama, part of the theatrical nature of what the name Actress always intended.
I wanted to ask about that. I don’t know if you intended it from the start, but it’s turned out to be the perfect name for everything about the Actress project. The balance between high and low brow references, drama and comedy… Not giving too much away, playing a role but also having that human element to everything. Even, at a basic level, the fact that you’re male. Was that always intended, or is it something that you look at now and you’re like ‘bloody hell, that worked out alright didn’t it?’
Well, I think much more about things now than I did then. I had a lot more people around me then, so I didn’t have as much opportunity to dwell on my thoughts so much. I could’ve gone through a load of names, but as it is, I happened to have this moment where I realised ‘a-ha, this sums up exactly what I do, and what the music could communicate’… then the people around me validated it, and I moved on. I think, if you calculate it though… Put it this way, nobody else could be called Burial and make that sort of music. Nobody else could be called Zomby and make that sort of music. The same for Aphex, Boards of Canada, Autechre, and so on. It’s one of those sort of things – it was up for grabs, anybody could have had that name, but it chose me. I know how that sounds, but it did.
Do you believe in fate?
Kind of, yeah. You can look at fate as condemnation too, you know what I mean? It’s like that tortured aspect – it’s what I chose, but it’s a blessing and a curse.
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