Actress photographed by Will Bankhead
Ahead of his appearance at this year’s CTM Festival, Michael Döringer speaks with the illustrious producer and techno deviant for a candid look into his operations as both artist and label executive.
London-based producer Darren Cunningham aka Actress has gained an impressive reputation over the last several years. By now, he’s a revered figurehead of electronic music, moving between tradition, progression and daring experimentation within dance music. Like kindred spirits such as Burial or Zomby, he’s one of the leading innovators on the fringes of the dancefloor.
Hailing from Wolverhampton in England’s West Midlands, Cunningham moved to London in the early 2000s and started out running his own club nights (also getting involved in the earliest Hyperdub events), but soon came up with his first 12″ record, released on his own Werkdiscs label, which he founded in 2004. The imprint subsequently released records by other upcoming young producers like Lukid, Zomby, Lone or Starkey, with the latest impressive additions being an EP by Hamburg-based Helena Hauff and Lukid’s low-key anthems on his 2012 album Lonely at the Top.
Although Actress’ debut LP Hazyville was released in 2008, it was not until Splazsh (2010) that he truly broke through, and 2012’s R.I.P ultimately disclosed his maverick approach to sound and structure. Both albums showcase a love for noisy experimentation, knackered though lush loops, and colorfully shimmering ambience, all of which references the dancefloor but doesn’t seem to care for its rules. Actress isn’t the kind of techno outsider that many offbeat producers have been representing lately—instead he operates from the center of the scene, heaving his tracks to a meta level, building artefacts that contemplate on dance music and what they could be. That’s what you might call a pioneer.
As always with artists who are constantly (in need of) challenging themselves as well as their fans, chances are very high that at some point with Cunningham’s work, you find your expectations smashed. Actress’ new album Ghettoville has much potential in doing so: it’s widely lacking the melodies, harmonies and vibrant coloring that made his last two albums so irresistible. This time round, the broken euphoria has almost completely turned into a more dystopian scenery of screwed up beats and grim noises, though you’re immediately able to detect Actress’ unique groove throughout. Still, this slight shift in sound is making sense; according to Cunningham, Ghettoville is the sequel to his debut Hazyville, which told another, more intricate story.
After releasing your last two albums with Honest Jon’s, with Ghettoville you’re returning to Werkdiscs. I guess you could have worked with Honest Jon’s again, as well?
Yeah, I could have done, but I really wanted to get back to my own record label. I just felt that it was the right time to release something on Werkdiscs. As you know, with Honest Jon’s the opportunity came around to release with another label who take it all very seriously in the way they release music and the way that they package and care for the music. So it was just a great opportunity for me to work with them and experience a different side of how a another label works. I think it was a good time to return to my own label to release this particular album. And I think the material also fits much better with this particular record.
Are you still running the label still on your own?
I have three people who help me out on a day-to-day basis, operating the label and also sort of handling things for myself and other artist who come through the label. And then after that we have meetings with Ninja Tune who distribute and manufacture the products we’re looking to release. So there’s people who take care of the label whilst I’m able to commit myself more to the music side of things.
But you still decide what is released?
Yeah, that hasn’t changed. I get recommended things by people, which I listen to and make a decision on whether it’s right for the label, or rather it’s based on if I actually like it. Nothing has changed from the first day that I started the label.
One of the most remarkable Werkdiscs releases lately was Helena Hauff’s Actio Reactio EP. How did you discover her?
Purely from being booked to play in Hamburg, I think it may have been at the Prinzenbar. She was the DJ that night and we got talking. I got to know a little bit of what she does and I made the connection that she played at the Golden Pudel and had her connections there. But I didn’t know of her before that; I listened to her DJ set and I was instantly impressed. I loved the way that she put her music together, her attitude towards the way she programmed her music, and I just remember that she was saying that she was messing around with equipment. So I said to her, “Listen, please, when you’ve completed your experiments, just let me know, I’d love to hear what you’re up to.”
It was probably another year before I heard from her again and she sent some music across, which I loved. And I’d already promised to bring her over to DJ as well, cause I felt she was a great DJ. So we invited her to play at a showcase the label did in Paris. And I think that night she may have showcased some of her tracks. And just from there really, she was kind enough to allow us to release, maybe not her first record, but a couple of tracks. And now I think people are taking more note of who she is and what she’s about. And I’ve certainly seen that she’s playing a lot more in Europe, so that’s great. When we release a record, the main thing for me is the idea that it pushes people a little bit further into what it is they’re trying to achieve with their career—and once we’ve done that, I sort of take a step back. From that point it’s up to them if they want to continue doing stuff with us or continue the relationship with the label. But I’m certainly a record-by-record person. Now that she’s really active and doing things, it’s great for me to see.
She certainly had some impact with her records. What’s most important for music to have so that it would fit on your label?
I’d like to be able to build a picture of somebody’s attitude and character in the music. And also a sort of humble vision I guess, but very decisive in terms of how they’re working and what it is that they want to achieve with the music that they are putting forward. That’s the most basic thing that I look for.
Let’s talk about your new record. When did you make those tracks? I think you’ve been teasing Ghettoville for quite a while.
The record has been known for two years maybe, but all the tracks are recent ones. There’s nothing that is pre-2012, they’re all new. With the album I went through a couple of different drafts actually—there’s probably about three different drafts. Initially it was going to be much more techno than it now actually is.
How is that?
There’s a five year gap between Hazyville and Ghettoville, and as it was a sequel, I realized that the main aspect that I wanted to achieve with Ghettoville was the time lapse, the gap between the first album and this one, which is basically the story—the time period, and where Actress is at, at this particular junction. So I’m at this stage where I’m trying to eliminate too much of a techno aspect from my mind. The idea of the kick drum becomes irritating for me at certain points. I still love techno, but I’m always wanting to find new ways to express my love for it, if you get what I’m saying. And so I’m just trying to look at different elements of it and where my sound has evolved to, and then trying to apply a new creative way of working with that medium. So yeah, it was just the fact that I wanted to make sure that it was talking a different language than the two albums [before].
It really does. Are you trying to say that Hazyville was made at a time before you fully embraced the kick drum?
Not really, because I was fully immersed in techno a number of years before Hazyville. That was the start of me trying to find my own style. And I had the luxury of time then, I hadn’t released that much music and there weren’t that many commitments other than to myself, to write that particular album. So I was able to and did spend a number of years on the album. But time changes and you don’t get that much time to work on music these days. So the process was much different. Obviously I had a bit more experience in terms of writing an album this time around—everything was just different. My love for techno is never going to diminish or change, but I found myself listening to less techno. When I was making Hazyville I was still listening to a lot of Carl Craig and Derrick May, Kenny Larkin and Terrence Dixon. And even though I still buy music, because I have to DJ and whatever, I don’t listen to those records in the same way I did then. I’ve stopped myself from becoming too influenced by other records.
The track titles on the new album suggest a certain atmosphere and context, like “Street Corp”, “Skyline”, “Rap” or “Corner”, but it’s hard to peer through all the fog. What story does Ghettoville tell?
I don’t think that this album has so much of a concept as for instance R.I.P or Splaszh even. Essentially, I tried to look at music now, not really so much as trying to tell a story. I think I’m past that now, because I’m always learning and always trying to do something a little bit different from what it is that I’m doing. I think for anybody listening to it, I don’t think you can ever really tell what anybody gets out of listening to music, and I don’t always make things which are necessarily easy to listen to—music for me is a form of expression. I didn’t start music really to make it for other people, I started making music cause it was something that enabled me to express certain emotions and feelings at certain times, you know.
And that vibe hasn’t really changed; when I turn the instruments on, I just want to work and create something. So therefore it’s not this thing where really contemporary pop-based music is at at the moment, where it’s for the form of entertainment—my entertainment is when I go up and perform live—but my music is basically a piece of art that I’ve created. And art sometimes is not consumable, or sometimes you just can’t penetrate the meaning in it. But time sometimes allows for that. I know that goes against the grain of how people consume music these days, and how everything is just lightning pace, where people probably don’t even listen to a song for much more than 30 seconds nowadays. I’m kind of anti-that. I approach my music, and that’s why I write it, as a visual art, even though I’m working with sound.
You spoke about going to Jamaica to record this specific album. So, did you do it?
Yeah, that wasn’t really based on me actually going to Jamaica. I think what you maybe have to understand—or don’t have to understand—is the fact that the music is “fronted” by Actress. Actress is the image, the world that he inhabits, it’s not necessarily non-fiction. There has to be that sort of bleed! And the fact is that my heritage is Jamaican, so by natural osmosis, Jamaica is always going to be in the music. I’ve been there a few times and felt the sensations of the place, and the DNA of that is going to be in the music. So this is what I’m saying: somebody else would probably actually be going to Jamaica, go around with a boom mic and dictaphone and record sounds. That’s not what I’m trying to communicate. Essentially what I’m communicating is: Jamaica, full stop. That’s what I want people to think of. Thats really who I am. I think at some point I would definitely actually go to Jamaica and record sounds and build music based on it, but that is a different thing—this is Actress, this is the worlds that I’m moving around in.
When the new album was announced, there was this seemingly dead serious statement of yours, suggesting that this would be the final Actress record. It also said, “This is the conclusion of the Actress image.” Why do you think you reached a conclusion? This isn’t the end, is it?
I think that’s unlikely, to be honest with you. Still there’s truth in it—the back-end of that is I still have commitment to the record label to record under a particular name. Essentially, there could be some kind of argument or fallout from the possibility of this being the final record. I’ve answered this question in a different way to other journalists, and really, I could still be just like, “see you later, that is actually it!” But things always change, I’m always making music and I don’t think that’s ever gonna change really and I also do release music under different names. But as far as Actress is concerned, I’m pretty sure the music will keep coming.
R.I.P drew on poetic (most notably Milton’s Paradise Lost) and religious themes, and you said back than that you wouldn’t be able to make that music if you didn’t believe in God. How exactly does this kind of faith pour into your music?
Oh, thats a hard starting place, because you’re really talking about experiences now. Sometimes people have moments that they call enlightenment. And I think many people have enlightened moments in their lives and recognize it, and some don’t notice or choose to ignore it. People choose to ignore a lot of what occurs in the natural world. And I guess that’s what I mean [with the above quote]. I don’t ignore anything! I don’t really believe, for instance, in coincidence—for me that’s just a man-made word. I listen to music and think to myself, “That is from a different place!” Someone has been so inspired and that goes so deep to create that—it’s from somewhere else, entirely.
And I don’t really want to approach this subject too much, because I’m not trying to… it’s very personal. But somebody asked me this question and my response was, “I wouldn’t be able to make the music I make if I didn’t believe in God.” And I believe that because, I just do. It’s like Buddhism, you know. It’s like, there’s a zen-way of being. Some people are very nervous or itchy, and nobody knows why they’re really nervous or disturbed. It may be an occurrence that has happened, that has triggered a reaction within them that has just made them that way. Because something had just occurred. Some people are just happy all the time. And I look at them and wonder to myself, “How are you just happy all the time?” And some people are just moody, or sad all the time. And it surprises me when people are like that, as well. So what I’m saying, I guess, is that there’s a lot of things that occur in the natural world which you can’t apply any sort of reasoning to. And because of that ambiguous unknowing aspect, that’s what I feel gives me the freedom to make the music that I make. It’s about freedom.
Artistically, you definitively seem to have reached a high level of freedom that you must really benefit from. Is there any future project you’re kind of dreaming about? Say, like the DRC Music project with Damon Albarn and others, where you travelled to Africa and recorded an album with local musicians in Congo?
Music is music, and you can’t always tell how things are gonna move. There was a period where we never thought dubstep was going to ever disappear. And it kind of did, and now people move in a completely different direction. Techno has had its moments where it was massive and then it’s been gone for a period and been completely dry. And then it has had its renaissance, but that renaissance meant that the values have changed and people approach it in a different way—like L.I.E.S. or the Trilogy Tapes stuff and other things. The people are just adding their own different flavor to it. So music’s always changing, you can never predict too much on how it’s going to move.
But for me it’s very simple: you work hard at what it is that you’re trying to do, and opportunities are just presenting themselves. It’s all based on hard work and labor, and being really honest and real with what it is you’re trying to do. Other people go the other way and intentionally change their style to achieve a new recording contract or a chart-selling piece of music. I’d love to achieve all of those without compromising what it is that I do. I love pop music, so it would be silly for me to say that I wouldn’t like to chart a piece of music one day. Whether that would happen or not is completely—at this stage—unlikely [laughs]. But you never know who you can find yourself in the studio with and you just match something together, and all of a sudden you got a chart hit. These things happen, but I’m not holding out for that. The most important thing for me is that I stay relevant in terms of the music that I’m writing. However, I’m moving into soundtrack, I’ve been asked to do a couple of soundtrack things, which is going to be new for me. ~
Published January 28, 2014. Words by michaeldoeringer.