Actress: Altered Identities
It comes as no surprise to learn that Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, doesn’t care what you think of 2014’s Ghettoville. The difficult record is the darkest listen in his discography, representing what he describes as the discarding of a sonic palette. Whether you enjoyed it or not is a moot point; it was a necessary exorcism, given that the palette was finished.
Except that’s not entirely true, Cunningham tells me with a grin. “If you’ve got a palette which you’ve exhausted, you do have the option of pushing it further,” he argues, digging into a pear tart amid the unsettling grandeur of a restaurant in London’s St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. “At that point it becomes what I’d call black noise, or black sound, and that’s what I’m really interested in. So that palette isn’t completely done yet, but a project like that is in opposition to certain realities right now.” A label like Ninja Tune – which is connected with Cunningham’s Werkdiscs imprint and is releasing his new album AZD – can’t sell black sound, he says.
The Wolverhampton-born producer likes to work several steps ahead. Last night’s Village Underground set featured practically no material from AZD (pronounced ‘azid’), which is comparatively more club-friendly than his previous albums. Instead, the audience heard even newer works in progress, performed by a hidden-from-view Cunningham, who fired midi signals to a synthesiser on stage. Stood in front of the synth was a chrome mannequin, dressed in what looked to be Cunningham’s shirt and bucket hat. Realising it wasn’t him was an arresting moment, and blinding background visuals meant it took a while for many to catch on.
The show, Cunningham says, was a live thought process, and an abstract rendering of what happens in the studio. “I’ve been watching a lot of live, early Pet Shop Boys, and what I love is that naive presentation of their art – a split screen video with visuals of their live tracks, running in the sequencer. It’s an attempt to show the other side of the process, and in doing so present a full art-piece. That’s what I want to do.” For Cunningham, this is the first period in his career when such careful thought has gone into the visual component, and his plans for how the show might develop are ambitious. “Ideally there would be more than one mannequin,” he says, “and if they could move, they would play the synths themselves. But they can’t at this moment in time. So I’m already talking to people about robotics, and AI. These things are bubbling away.”
Regardless of whether Cunningham will actually birth his own man-machines, the theme of potential, and of what-could-be, seems of key interest in itself. He describes AZD in many different ways, at one point saying that what he really wanted was “a hot mess, and a chance to present a contour of how the music starts, and ends” and “a leading question for whatever work follows.” On the cover art, we see Cunningham’s hand join with a chrome figure’s hand, representing what he calls an incomplete transition, and an indicator of where we might be going next.
This idea of ongoing reinvigoration, and a reflection on the creative process, runs throughout AZD. The sharp pops of synth on opener Nimbus bubble like primordial life beneath the surface. This is followed by Untitled 7, in which better-formed arpeggios reach above a layer of metallic strings. The beat drops in, but only briefly, like a studio test-run, or a misfire.
Other tracks, like Fantasynth, fade up in full swing and develop only subtly before fading out again, like an excerpt from a much longer take. Runner (previously released anonymously as Uber Spliff to Gatwick) begins the same way, but is later drowned out by a muffled recording of voices talking and a woman singing, as if Cunningham was suddenly distracted from his work. Closer Visa is as pretty as it is disorientating, with quick blasts of piano and synth-choir trying to keep pace with the drums, like an excited mind trying to stay on top of its own ideas.
“I’m happy to go back to a shitty job if that’s what it takes to reinvigorate my music. I’m not going to claw onto my career – I’m an artist”
These tracks could be the bare bones of a new palette for Cunningham’s music. Ghettoville’s death-knell ambience and accompanying note, in which Cunningham described the record as ‘the black tinted conclusion of the Actress image’, encouraged speculation that the Actress moniker, if not Cunningham himself, was retiring. Obviously this isn’t the case. Another way to read the Ghettoville note, he suggests, is as a deliberate act of self-sabotage that was necessary to make something new.
“I was in a particularly destructive mood at the time,” he says, pausing for a moment as the restaurant’s pianist begins another perfunctory recital. “But I’ve a tendency for that. I used to record to MiniDisc a lot, and I remember once, during a particularly frustrating period where I was on the verge of finding a voice to carry my music, I just thought ‘fuck this’ and left a bag of them on the back of a bus.” The memory makes him laugh, and he wonders out loud who may have come across them.
It’s certainly funny, but it’s also exemplary of certain artistic recklessness that’s been a common characteristic of the Actress project. Considering the austere economic condition of the music industry, is it always worth the risk? “I’m happy to go back to a shitty job if that’s what it takes to reinvigorate my art later on,” he says. “I’m not going to claw onto my career – I’m an artist, and if I lose all my synthesisers and I’m left with a shitty Casio, so be it. I’m still going to make music.” The chaos in his own life when making AZD, along with the “appetite for anomalies” seen worldwide over the last year, means that risks are further necessary to regain control of what he’s created. “It’s become natural to question the identity of this Actress character,” he says. “The more music I’ve given to other people, the more space it’s given them to get involved, and that’s a sacrifice.”
As such, the LP is in part an attempt to reclaim comfort with identity. “AZD can be read as an anagram of Daz, a nickname given by my peers at school which I never asked for,” he explains. “And so it’s a way of taking control of an identity imposed on me. And in the same way, that name AZD has a pharmaceutical quality. It’s a sound vitamin that’s helped to clear my palate of Ghettoville – a happy drug that’s made me happy to be Actress.” Perhaps Cunningham’s ‘black sound’ means the darkness may one day return – time and again he’s proven a hard artist to map an accurate trajectory of. But for now, Actress seems positively brimming with new life, just like the puzzling yet enthralling creations on AZD.
AZD is out now via Ninja Tune