Euclidian, Non-Euclidian, Actressian. Both in music and in conversation, Darren Cunningham bends the world to his geometry. Equal parts curator and creator, Cunningham first came to prominence at the helm of Werkdiscs, a club night turned record label that served as a jumping-off point for a wave of experimental electronic music producers. Cunningham took that same genre ambiguity and doubled down on it with his debut Hazyville, a collection of sonic vignettes that are as much mood as they are music. Pounding beats fade in and out in medias res, but never into one another; track titles (“Ivy May Gilpin,” “Mincin”) yield nothing about themselves.
Cunningham has released several more Actress albums since then, to varying degrees of acclaim (2012’s R.I.P. making the biggest splash). Across his catalog, he’s established an incredibly strong sonic identity—Actress is Actress, and nothing else is. His albums are individual worlds, reaching that high point of musical engagement where the listener has no choice to be transported for 45 or so minutes. Its very foundation refuses relegation to the background—you might almost grow comfortable until a 4/4 kick comes in against a 6/8 melody and sends the brain spinning in two directions.
Cunningham’s conversational geometry is very much rule-based. It’s not uncommon for interviews with forward-thinking producers to go a bit off the rails; often, this makes for some of the best quotes. Cunningham, however, is quick with declarative answers—“yes, because…” or, “no, I don’t.” It’s unclear whether this is because he has spent an inordinate amount of time seeking out those answers already, or if he has spent none at all. It’s as if his past and future are simply laid out as causes and effects, awaiting recollection more than interpretation.
We met at this year’s Moogfest in Durham, NC, taking shelter from a storm to talk about dancing, critique, and setting your music free. —Corrigan Blanchfield
What’s the format of your show tonight?
Actress:My performance tonight is going to be what my performance was last night, but I’ll have to judge it a bit more because I don’t know, like, what the size of the room is going to be. Obviously I’m playing between slightly different acts as well, so I’m just gonna check it out, go back to the hotel, and figure out something to work in that environment. The only difference is that with something like last night where it’s really intimate I might be chopping between ideas whereas in a bigger setting I might be a bit more expansive upon a few ideas; a bit more ambient, maybe.
This entire current scene of progressive electronic music is constantly being described in terms of the club—would you say that you’re making music to be danced to?
Actress:I’m not a dance music producer. I say that what I do is experimental fantasy, sonic fantasy. But I think that as an inner sort of thing I’m always dancing. I dance to my music, but I don’t think that I sit down with the idea of trying to make people dance—it’s always to satisfy myself first. It’s about the experience for me, whether people want to dance to it or sit still and soak it up. If people get shit scared of it, that’s cool as well. But I don’t restrict myself in terms of outcomes when I’m making music.
Can you get the same satisfaction from watching people’s reactions to your performance as you do from composing it?
Actress:Always, yeah. It’s not that likely that you’re going to hear a huge amount of DJs play my music, so if you want to hear Actress you mostly have to come to my show. So I feel in control of my music—I know how to work with it. I know what I experienced in the studio at a particular moment whilst creating something, so I’m interested to see if that can get replicated on the dance floor. But I find that people at my shows often spend a lot of time finding their way into my music, you know? I certainly have respite moments where it’s like, “ok, well I can dance to this,” but it’s a lot of work to set that up as well. I’m not looking for a continuous sort of dance aspect. For me, it’s more environmental, there’s sort of a story.
Do you feel like you lose some control when you turn your experiences out into the wild with an album as opposed to a concert?
Actress:Yeah, but that’s all because the work is precious to me. I do think a little bit about…not necessarily what the audience is expecting, but how the sound has evolved from album to album. I always want there to be a strong mood and for there to be a certain challenge about it as well. I can’t dictate how someone listens, but I can give them some obstacles.
How do you approach constructing something like a DJ-Kicks release vs. a proper Actress album? Does being able to use other people’s tunes change anything?
Actress:I don’t think there’s much difference, to be honest. When I do something like DJ-Kicks it’s basically telling people that I’m interested in other people’s music, I’m always listening to other people’s music, and I want to support other people’s music. That’s sort of my style—it would have been very easy for me to collect a bunch of records and do a very tidy, linear, Actress-style set, but what I listen to doesn’t follow those sort of rules.
You’ve said in a previous interview that Actress isn’t you as much as a character in the musical world that he inhabits. Is that fleshed out more by the song choice for mixes released under the Actress name?
Actress:It’s a bit more insight, isn’t it? It’s more insight into the music that I like, essentially, and I don’t think that mystique is necessarily a great thing—you want to dispel that aspect. I think that it’s important to make people aware of other people’s music, that’s always been my thing. I was a DJ first, so I’ve always been buying and collecting other people’s music. But I’ve never bought too heavily into just one style, I think it’s important to remain flexible within your interests.
Mystique seems to be something people are eager to apply to any electronic music producer not operating on the scale of EDM festivals.
Actress:I don’t really do a huge amount of interviews, and I’m not really set up in a way which is necessarily guaranteed to sustain a career. Obviously I’ve got that in place, but it’s not like…put it this way—I’ve been making music for a long time but I’m only just starting to think about management and stuff like that. I’m looking into loads of different things thinking how I want to branch out, into film and other aspects of music.
How much thought do you have to put into strategizing your career, say, five years from now?
Actress:Well, sort of all the time. Everything’s changing all of the time, and my creativity’s changing as well, so I do find myself thinking about a whole load of things more.
What inspired you to start up Werkdiscs—is that the same impulse to share other people’s music?
Actress:Sort of. Werkdiscs, essentially, was a label that was created with friends. A lot of love went into it, and I felt like I was a sort of patron for an idea. I was more of a custodian of the label, and then I took it on because the scene at that particular time didn’t exist as it does now. There weren’t these sorts of festivals occurring where certain brands had taken an interest in engaging music. I always felt there was an industry there, and I pushed on with the label because I could see it evolving towards something. And then dubstep happened, and that changed things massively. Not necessarily for the better for me, because I wasn’t ready to take the root of what I do and fit it to what was emerging. I had to sort of lay low for a while and devise a strategy for how I could come out of this black hole—that would end up being the time I started to write an album. I’ve always been into techno, electro, house.
Dubstep was eclipsing those genres completely, so my mission at that point was to add a flavor to those genres that sort of embraced the mood of dubstep—not necessarily the sound—but also incorporated this sort of void of where I was at because of it. That’s how Hazyville came about as an album, four years of a concentrated idea reacting against this thing. With Werkdiscs, the artists that I brought through at this particular time were all doing the other side of hip-hop, the other side of rave, or the other side of psychedelic music. That’s really what I was interested in.
Lone started to blend into this Low End Theory type of thing, Lukid went basically the same way, and Zomby influenced a lot of the rave revival. I think my sound influenced more of a lo-fi aesthetic as far as house and techno. I think that people who were thinking of techno as a sort of German minimalism are now realizing that it can be made in your house, on your primitive equipment, and that it becomes expressionism rather than production. I consider what I do to be much more performance and expressionism than producing. Whether that’s true or not, who knows?
A lot of electronic music gets somewhat rigidly defined by mood or tempo. How do you navigate falling between a lot of those classifications?
Actress:I don’t know, to be honest with you. When it comes to genres, I’m not interested. I think that’s what kills scenes. A genre’s always successful, but because of that it comes around and implodes on itself at some point. Because of that I’ve always tried to stay away from genre classification. I just tell people what my interests are. And my interests are broad—I’m into classical music, I’m into coldwave, I’m interested in everything.
You’ve talked about albums being reflections of a point in time, and where you are in a specific period. Do you have specific stages of collecting sounds, self-examination, etc.? Or are you going through the full process for the entire duration of creating an album?
Actress:If I was super organized and super together, clean living and woke up early every day, I think I would be that person that has a month to collect sounds, a month to distill my being. I’m just not that person. I smoke ganja and just generally be an artist, which past a certain point is just gaining acceptance for being a bit of a bum. The thing is, there has to be a level of discipline as well, so my whole process is going through constant refining. I’m quite hard on myself, I’ve created a new studio recently that’s demanded an insane amount of applications and drawing schematics. Completely undoing and ripping up the way I’ve worked before, which has been pretty brutal. It’s research all the time—the sounds are just a part of that.
It seems like now producers are assessed not only on the merits of their own work but on how well they can display that they’re staying on the cutting edge of what other people are doing—is that something you’re trying to participate in?
Actress:That’s a difficult one, because I think what’s happened in music is that it’s become much more about sound design and programming, but I’m neither of those. My programming is more like a graffiti artist than a Bill Gates. It’s a little bit precise but a little bit hazy, and when it comes to sound design I just don’t find it interesting. The actual aesthetic of insane digital sound processing is not really where I’m coming from, I’m much more interested in textures and how sounds which probably shouldn’t work together are able to bend and cooperate. How sounds, once you’ve built some rudimentary programming blocks, just get let go and form the genesis of how ideas can form. You could say it’s more sound discovery than sound design for me.
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of how people embed meaning into their own songs. It sounds like your work is extremely personal to you—it seems like there’s a lot in there that you simply can’t hope to communicate clearly.
Actress:I’m not trying to communicate. I’m not trying to make a statement. Sometimes I find the results hilarious, tunes that I’ve made where someone makes a great video that makes the track work even better. That, for me, is what makes it all worthwhile, giving the track a purpose where I didn’t have the vision for it. I allow my music to be open-source, like on Ghettoville there are a couple of tracks that don’t have beats. People can take it and create their own thing over it, and I don’t have a problem with that. There would be occasions where they took a track which I very specifically created and shat on it, but I like aspects of my work to be open-ended.
If you’re making music primarily for yourself and without a target, is it ever odd to see it catch on with a larger audience?
Actress:When I put out my first record, that’s when I captured an audience. It’s going to change with the times, and I can’t predict those sorts of things. I can only go into the studio and make the music that I like. Things change a little bit when you’re with a label that’s always obsessing over those things, but that’s why I’ve got a manager, to deal with all that.
Can you still enjoy the process of making music? Can you disconnect it at all from a paycheck?
Actress:Are there many people that enjoy their job? Essentially, this is my job—I don’t have another. I have good days and I have bad days. A good day is when something works, or when you sit down and manage to execute an idea that you have. A bad day is when this studio doesn’t want to play ball today, and you can’t make anything because you’ve just been fixing problems all day. I don’t enjoy those days, because it’s calling on the more technical side of my creativity, and I hate being bogged down in the technical. My workflow is always something that I’m trying to refine and make more efficient. But that’s maintenance, there’s no business in the world that has a computer mainframe that just works smoothly 24/7 without maintenance. In my environment I’m studio engineer, I’m maintenance guy, I’m clean-up guy, I do the whole lot. I do enjoy it, but certainly there are days that I don’t enjoy it at all.
You mentioned wanting to expand your horizons to film. Is that something specific you’re working on or an aspiration?
Actress:I’d like to just not restrict myself, basically, and just to generally be open. I’ve started to expand a bit into working with an orchestra, which was great creatively; intense and challenging and hard, but fulfilling. I expect myself to create work all the time, and at this moment that’s albums. I think my format is albums, and that aspect of me will always be there, but I’d like to expand into other things. I’m not good at taking on too many things at one time, so I often have to collaborate with other people in order to apply myself in the correct way.
Do you find collaboration natural, or can it sometimes be more difficult than individual work?
Actress:I think it really depends on finding the right collaborator. In the case of the orchestra, they were the right collaborators because I’m always looking to learn, and I felt like I was gonna learn form the principal conductor and I was gonna learn from the experience. That’s when it makes sense and it’s worthwhile. But I’m not really that guy who is going to collaborate with just anybody. I like connecting with people, I like hanging out with people and philosophizing about music; I don’t really see why that should evolve into going into the studio with that person. Not that I’m necessarily pushing back on that; I just see the philosophizing and discussing as being as important as actually doing the collaboration.
Do you have something you’d consider a personal philosophy of music, or were you just delineating people who might think similarly about music and people with whom you’d actually want to work?
Actress:I think the philosophy of music. For my style of music, I think that’s what develops what the music becomes and what it’s about. I’m always interested to hear people’s opinions, what they’re thinking about. There’s obviously some times it can become a bit one-sided, and then I just switch off a little bit, but the philosophy of talking about music with fellow musicians…there’s a lot of deep thinkers out there. I’m not so sociable online, so I don’t get my buzz from that sort of interaction.
Are you able to just think about music all the time, or do you find yourself in need of specifically non-musical activities to pursue?
Actress:No, I’m pretty much thinking about music all the time. I do things that enable me not to be closeted in that; I like to walk a lot, I’ll go on hikes with my dog. I like to swim a lot. It’s important to focus on the music as well because you’re always diving back into the studio and the situation could be anything. I’m always visualizing things, I’m always thinking about what wasn’t working yesterday and how I might fix it tomorrow. Like I said, it isn’t just about making the music; it’s about refining the set-up, changing the set-up. I’m not just in the laptop; I’ll make sounds with hardware.
You’ve mentioned refinement a lot; would you consider yourself to be on a linear path of refinement from the pre-Hazyville days?
Actress:I’m much more refined; Hazyville was made with my eyes lacking pupils; automatic, almost. I think what’s happened now is that I’m retracing my steps and trying to organize that a bit more. It was ok for me to write Hazyville then because I was post-student anyway, I could go into that space. Now that I’m a bit older and I have responsibilities, I have to make things a bit more…I need to be more able to scale out the process. There are more reference points—if I have to go and get stems for something, I can do that. Before, there was the track and that was it—there were no separate elements for it, no building blocks to recover.
Do you give much thought to how you would re-do previous work, or does that just impede your progression?
Actress:I think record labels think about that more than the artist. Logically, I don’t see how that even applies. The artist is making the music, and the music reflects their evolution. I do listen back to old songs, but that’s more to see if I still enjoy them. Has it lasted the test of time? There’s still quite a few where I can say that I achieved what I wanted to achieve. Mostly I go back and I say, “fuckin’ a, how did I make that?” So it’s not like I could go back and re-create much of it, and why would I want to? I just move forward all the time.
Critique is somebody else’s perception of where an artist is at, and that’s totally unimportant to me. It serves a different purpose, really. Especially now, it’s like everything is critiqued. Everything is pulled apart by everybody. It’s constant, but it’s cool as well—you can easily feed that back in on itself as an artist, because you’re in control of your own work. I can make it reactive, I can make it responsive, I can allow it to be humorous. That’s why I avoid genre, because as soon as I try to make a genre that’s where it won’t work. That’s never been what I’ve been about. It’s not a matter of pride; you can’t tell me how to change this or that if I hadn’t done something in the first place.