An Electronic Composer Reconstructs The Natural World
At times, the London producer Darren Cunningham's whole style seems like an intentional zag to the mainstream's zig — the music he puts out under the name Actress is shadowy and decaying rather than grabby and bright. But really, he's off in his own world, and it took him years to get there. Cunningham won't say exactly how old he is, but a rough guess puts him at 35, since he recalls being 13 or 14 when the first Boyz II Men album came out in 1991.
Actress's latest album, R.I.P., conjures several worlds within that darkness, ranging from lovely to severe, Eden and Tartarus. It's music that feels ageless precisely because his vision — and achieving it — is the only thing that matters.
Interviewing Cunningham ends up being a bit of a process. He has an idiosyncratic aversion to openness — he doesn't wear a mask or a hood like his peers Burial and Zomby but he'll give away his tracks on Twitter, then suddenly make his account private. Conditions for our conversation include the following: He needs to know the topics in advance. He won't talk on the phone. He prefers to meet via computer. He's up for a chat one weekday evening that goes longer than expected. Over two hours, he sits in his South London office looking out the window at kids playing in a garden, slowly responding to questions on Skype instant messenger in mysterious fragments that suddenly turn deep:
"i've spent a long time developing my own philosophy. it's a concrete idea of sound representation that i am looking for. like u could almost touch it. forming an environment rather than a music form."
He wants to talk about R.I.P. And nature. Actress is all about nature right now.
Inspired by long walks around his leafy neighborhood with his dog, he holes himself up in his studio where he digitally sands down samples from other music and field recordings of open air, forming them into compositions he likens to sculpture.
"i study nature a lot, and how organisms including us react to our environments. the texture of wood in water changes when the sun bakes it. what is the sound of the reaction?"
He makes landscapes; he makes moods. The songs on R.I.P. sound like gleaming sun on water, then angry clouds full of lightning. The specific track modeled on those woody thoughts is called "Tree of Knowledge." And though it's made with the tools used to create much electronic dance music, it adheres to a vivid, unusual set of ideas. It turns out that when he's composing, he's not thinking of his product as music.
"see u need to understand that the brain interprets things based on what u have already heard as music per se. i try to ignore the music part as much as possible, but i want to get an angle on the form, and the sensations"
Actress's music ends up sounding minimal but alive, an organic opposite to most other music made using the same tools.
"u may not be able to hear it, but u can imagine it"
Sonically, "Tree of Knowledge" recalls the slowed-down hip-hop of the late DJ Screw, from Texas, deconstructed and reanimated to seem as if it's rustling in the wind. Parts are held together with a glow Actress calls "synth chakra." He acknowledges the Screw sound — but:
"the difference is that what i am after is a direct representation of physical or organic matter. i want to achieve the sound of wood bending, warping, creaking, swaying"
Wood is one inspiration. Marijuana is another — which he talks about in almost every interview except this one. So is death; R.I.P. was recorded after the passing of his friend, the artist David Gormley. The afterlife would seem to feature, since the album's titles come from John Milton's epic, Biblical poem Paradise Lost — but if there is any religion in the music, it's strictly on the natural level. Told that two of his songs sound like heaven and hell ("Ascending" and "Shadows on Tartarus"), he says yes, heaven and hell on earth. The piano-plinking "Jardin" has as much to do with the Garden of Eden and the concept of innocence as an actual love of gardens.
He sets himself apart in electronic music with an approach to sampling that involves completely obscuring the source, and the way he uses synthesizers, microphones, and the computer program Ableton — but doesn't want to talk about any of that. The more he's asked about technical aspects of composing or references to other musicians, the more he wants to talk about his enjoyment of monkey puzzle plants — whose branches look like tails — and the sky. He's traveling to Seattle in September for the region's big electronic outing Decibel Festival, and looking forward to the sky there, too.
"i hear seattle has some serious lenticular clouds"
He doesn't spend more than two words describing his signature audio trick, a unique deployment of sidechain compression. Sidechaining is a common effect used by producers in dance music to make that pumping, woomp-woomp-woomp sound. Actress uses it in a punk rock way, sidechaining elements of the track to the drum, then removing the drum, throwing away what was supposed to be the big draw — leaving rhythmic remnants of sonic pressure. It makes the track feel like a sausage being squished from the outside.
When I ask him to be more specific, he offers only:
"Shadowplay?" I type.
"couldn't have put it better"
His other main trick is a wicked use of ambience. Sounds are often doused with static and crackle on R.I.P., as if dying on the record. Others are mixed uncomfortably up front in the field of listening. On "Jardin," some of the percussion is like dust under your record needle, and there is a gentle wave that sounds like the beach. Actress says it is "room atmo."
"it's pure sound. i work with white noise a lot. i can prickle it, dapple it, flatten it, bwoon it."
As a kid, Cunningham beatboxed and sang Boyz II Men songs to girls in the street. He played "imaginary instruments" until he was seven years old, then recorder, clarinet, saxophone and guitar. Despite his talents, he set music aside for a dream of playing in the English football league, which he pursued relentlessly (his father also played semi-pro). Young Cunningham played for West Bromwich Albion before injury took him out at 19, beginning what he calls "the black period." He moved from his hometown of Wolverhampton to London, studied recording, dedicated himself 100% to music and chose his name to mess with people's perceptions. He made a splash on the scene in 2008 with his debut Hazyville, which introduced the world to the Actress sound. Another splash followed with Splazsh, his album from 2010, which veered into shattering funk and seething goth territory. His and Zomby's albums came out on Actress' own label Werkdiscs — but after that Actress signed to Damon Albarn's label Honest Jon's. Albarn and fellow British rock legends Radiohead are big fans, though of course the attention leaves Actress "unfazed."
Right now he's on a roll ("i've just begun the white period") and plans to record another album this year in Jamaica, which he might call Ghettoville. Werkdiscs has recently become an imprint on the larger, more established Ninja Tune. He's feeling productive.
"when you're on the field a high number of visions pop into your head at a rapid rate. ur main focus is putting the ball in the goal. i've transposed my technical skill as footballer into brain reflexes through sound"
Can it be so simple? Surely not. But there is an analogy to be made, since scoring in football is like writing a song. And in one of the long football digressions of the interview, he has advice for kids about that could also apply to music: kicking a ball through a target is good practice. But negotiating your balance to gravity — the flow of the world we live in — is the key to the game.