Published Feb 07, 2014UK producer Darren Cunningham, more widely known as Actress, has not traditionally been one for doing many interviews, being part of the mysterious, anonymity-loving slew of UK producers that have emerged in the wake of UK dubstep, but we managed to get hold of him recently to talk about what he intended with his new album Ghettoville — which just came out on his label Werkdiscs, distributed by Ninja Tune — his outlook on society, and how he sees himself as more of a painter of sound than a musician.
I understand that you intended Ghettoville to be a kind of sequel to your debut Hazyville?
Yeah, they're sort of like the sun and the moon. I wrote Hazyville in 2004 or something like that, I can't remember exactly when, but at the time I didn't know what was in front of me. I had no idea. There was no noise in terms of being a new artist. I was very pure in the way I was going about my work and I think you have to get some objectivity on where you're at in that moment. That's why I wanted to give a moon image of Hazyville with the name Ghettoville. It's the same palette in a sense — that kind of monotone sound. I wanted to put a moon over that and really collapse time and really work the material. And I don't mean working the material in a sense of "Fuck, I'm going to create the Sistine Chapel!" It's not that, it's just a real bending of my own rules and that was quite liberating in fact.
So, was your process for this album quite different from before?
Yeah, it was. Before it was just me and my laptop and a library of sounds that I'd made or collected, whereas these days I'm working off four computers, three synthesizers and I've also got some outboard gear. I don't mean that in the opulent sense, it's still quite basic when it comes down to it, but the scale of work has increased so that I'm grabbing bits from different computers and stitching things together and different machines give off different light so texturally it's different. Certainly for the music that I've written to date, they've all been made with something else in mind — an understanding of not just how noise works together texturally but how it can work emotionally. You have people who make specific noise-based music, that's their discipline, or drone for example. I want aspects of all of those but I want there to be an image of some sort of what it is, at least in my mind. That's why I was interested in music in the first place. When I work on music that is more tonally structured, using three tones and no more, my experience of working with that sort of noise gives my ears a different perspective in terms of space and light. Ultimately what I want to achieve is getting across a different sort of 'light' in the music.
It sounds like you think quite visually when you think about music.
Yeah, I do. I wish I could make films to back up a lot of the music that I make because I think it would give a completely different edge. Right now it's completely down to other people's imaginations to interpret the work and the way that they receive it. John Carpenter is someone who's a massive influence and someone that I've always felt has separated himself from everybody else musically. He's known as much for music as for his films with is really unique. He has very basic ideas, which are very edgy but work with his visual concepts. I'm into artists and painters as much as I am into musicians. I'm much more interested in painter's techniques than I am interested in musical techniques. That's what keeps me interested.
What kind of artists interest you in terms of these techniques?
I'm big into what Matisse did, purely from the process really — going from really cluttered to removing everything and just having one thing. That progression in his work is central to how I view the making of music. And then the intense expression of Basquiat and where a lot of his images might have come from, diving into different worlds. Then there's Pollock. I've never been able to get into Rothko, though but through doing what I do I get what people understand about it. I still look at his work and think "I just don't get it. What is it?" but that's the point — what one person sees is not necessarily what another person might see. It's like a tramp walking down the street with a trolley full of trash — it means nothing to a person walking down the road but it means everything to the person carrying that trash.
That's surprising as when you mentioned painting in relation to your work I thought of Rothko straight away.
The closest person that had a deep impact on me and made me understand Rothko a bit more was actually... He did a painting that was the deepest blue and it's now a patented paint. It's one panel of the deepest blue. Hold on, I'll have to call my wife. It's call a friend time! [Calls his wife...] Yves Klein! I think it's in the Pompidou and I looked at that and it just went right through me. Just completely went all the way through me. The deepness of it just absolutely sucked me in. I've never had a painting do that to me. I guess people get the same thing off Rothko.
When you complete a track do you have very definite pictures in your head or a narrative that accompanies the music?
Very often I don't listen to what the sounds are that I'm using and I actually just draw pictures on the timeline. For me, there are always images going on in my mind, that's an infinite thing. When I make music it's almost like rebuilding memories. The earliest tapes that I was listening to were like early gangsta hip-hop tunes but I don't have the tapes anymore and I don't know who half the artists were but I still have this ember burning away somewhere of how they sounded to me. That's the way that I'm making and approaching music.
Ghettoville is quite an unsettling listen. There are some dark themes on the album.
I think that the world that we live in is quite unsettling. There's no real messages in the album but I kinda wanted it to be somewhere between cinematography, excavation, sculpture and a comment on the world as I've observed it over the last two years. When I first game up with the idea of Ghettoville I was aiming for a sort of hip-hop version of Hazyville but that sort of turned into a DJ Screw-style techno. And within that is this whirlwind of working in the studio, having to catch a flight to perform a gig, meeting people from different countries who speak different languages and just being in this vortex, whilst trying to maintain a perspective on what it is you're trying to convey, not just for this album but generally, with regards to making music. I'm trying to express myself visually, not necessarily just sonically all the time.
Ghettoville aside, there's a lot of dark music coming out of the UK. Why do you think that is?
I think we live in a state of complete... I think we're all prone in a way. I think that's why the Internet is there, to assure us that things are still going on and there's nothing to really think about but around us things are certainly changing. You've got people who have had their benefits cut and living in a real state of poverty. You wouldn't think that in the UK there would be a family going without food most days but it does occur. But it's very easy to be shielded from all that because you've got all these distractions like the football or Dancing on Ice or the X Factor. There's always something to anaesthetise you, you know? I think there are a lot of people who see through all that shit and what's actually going on. The way for me to express it is in music. I'm not a politician, I'm not an activist and I don't really have a forthright social mind. I just leave it to expressing it in a subtle way through the music that I write but also making use of the education that I have, which is born of being in the UK.
Are you positive about where things are right now?
Yeah, I am. You have to stay positive, man. I talk about concealed pain a lot but you have to survive. There are a lot of people on benefits also worked a day in their life. So, the predicaments that they're in are often self-imposed. That doesn't go for everyone but there's two sides to everything. It's a hard world out there and if you're feeling slightly fearful about shit that might be going on around you, you go and listen to some music that fits your feeling or go out with your mates, or go spray a wall or go urban running and go jumping off buildings and do some urban acrobatics. It's all based on feeling. Our lives are much more extreme these days and my way of dealing with a lot of shit is creating an outlook and building the landscape around it. It makes me feel comfortable. Makes me feel like I could take anything on. That's why pop music is a massive industry. It keeps people's minds off shit that doesn't really concern them and keeps their mind into shit which is really positive whilst also conveying the underlying message. It's all a state of affairs.
That's the same culture you see as anaesthetising though, distracting us from making real change?
That is true but revolution does still occur. People are fighting back all the time, it just doesn't really occur in the way it has before. People aren't stupid and that's why you do have special people who are prepared to rise up and confront those issues and it has happen all the time. People like Gil Scott-Heron or Nelson Mandela. But if you're shouting too much you usually get sorted out. People approach life in different ways. It's all a drama, it's all a bit of a theatre. That's the underlying thing about Actress, it's just theatre being played out, it's just done in experimental music based on techno and hip-hop and whatever. It occurs in code, it occurs through hacking and very invisible methods like music. There's a lot of subversion in it. Everything is code now so it'll be expressed in different ways. A lot of people are expressing it through art. It's like the label Blackest Ever Black, that name says a lot. So I think people's reactions to things occur in very complex ways now, it's so nuanced that it occurs before you've even seen that it's going to happen. You can get a rave together in a few seconds through Facebook. That's how things are these days. We're living in a completely different age.
But does that expression of discontent in music or raving actually amount to revolution?
Totally. It does. It changes people. I always saw the rave culture that happened in the UK as our military service. I wasn't even part of it because I was too young but it was like a UK youth league and out of it you had this reaction. Youth reacting to governments and the government getting involved in youth-related enterprise, because it was young people putting on raves and such, and when the government had had enough of it and it all got quashed what came out of that was an explosion of culture. You had programs like The Word appearing on TV. It was being exported out of the fields onto our TV screens and the ripple-effect was that streetwear started to change, our language started to change, to the point where you had grime and language keeps moving and changing until everybody's speaking the same language and lingo regardless of what colour you are.
That's the revolution. Then under New Labour it becomes a bit more bland but the UK plays a massive part in terms of culture, as much as the U.S. There's always gonna be some people who are fighting the corner of ravers and there's always gonna be someone who wants to quash it but the follow-through of smashing something is that the pieces that come from it go into different areas. Can you keep just raving? There are a lot of people for whom the party never stopped and they're just acid heads now. Whereas other people start families and get into another side of politicising something that is important, like global awareness or environmentalism. The pieces always fall into place in a way that's why I never think there's anything to worry about too much.
Is your work intended as a catharsis rather than a means to communicate a specific message?
I think it's always involved and you're always learning. Things are made up out of industries and industries feed off of each other, brands feed off of us, we feed off the brands, it all gets spat back into clubs and we all experience on a CD or a vinyl and then we react with each other on the Internet through email or through photographs. Moods are changing but it's always been like that and it will always be like that. In my life I've lived through the Cold War, the Gulf War and the other Gulf War and apartheid. Everything else doesn't matter really. It doesn't matter if something gets a shit review. It doesn't matter essentially if something gets a great review. People have made great art and actually made nothing out of it. A lot of it's all really disposable, a lot of it will mean a hell of a lot to one person. I make music for people who just listen to it and get something out of it and that's it, and in the same respect I make music for people who want to pick it apart and talk creatively about it and I make it also for the people that just wanna fucking put a shoe in it — it's there for everybody. It's all good.
Your releases vary a lot in style from release to release. Do you make a conscious effort to experiment or is it a more organic movement between styles?
It's a bit of both really. I wanted to make something like would be kind of in between DJ Screw and techno and it was just a test for me. Not analysing beats and imposing sounds over the top, nothing like that, but just digging deep through how you heard it and then interpreting it through the technology at my disposal. I know how to get around a computer and I know how to program in a weird way but the dexterity that is involved in it is just a bit... How do I explain this? When I'm working I kind of imagine myself spray-painting rather than actually drawing in notes because I find that really boring. If I'm trying to key in a pattern I'm trying to do it as if I'm not really using the equipment and I have no hesitation to build different tracks at different tempos.
You've alluded to the fact that this might be the last thing you do under the name Actress.
Hmmm... I don't know. Maybe. I did say that but my mood changes like that [clicks fingers] and I may well have been in a bad mood that day. But I don't wanna hide reactions like that because they're part of the process as well. It's not something that was made up on the spot to generate any sort of reaction. I didn't want to give the impression I would be retiring. If I did I'd have to go down to the job centre and get a job. I'm always on the search for the next sound that's gonna light up a feeling inside. I think Ghettoville is a good bookend to the album I started with. In the four albums I've demonstrated different techniques and different scopes and I think I've offered something to the table in terms of electronic music. It's always evolving though, you know and like I say you take what you've learned into something else. Whether it gets released or not is a completely different question but I think that would be the next step.