In a statement posted to the Werk Discs website prior to the release of his fourth full-length, Ghettoville, London producer Darren Cunningham described the triple-LP as the “bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” adding the even more cryptic declaration, “R.I.P Music 2014.” Fans of his patiently unfolding dance music deconstructions were puzzled by the move, especially after R.I.P, his last album under the Actress moniker, saw him poised on the brink of a mainstream breakthrough; the music press’ reliably knee-jerk reaction was to speculate that Cunningham was retiring the Actress project, or worse yet, retiring from music. Flash forward to Ghettoville‘s late January release, though, and by the looks of it, the sardonic producer is not only still trucking along in the studio, but more vocal about his work’s conceptual underpinnings than ever before. Actress isn’t dead, but Ghettoville, as he describes it, is kind of a “rotting, steaming carcass” of what you’d expect a dance record to sound like.
You lived in Brixton for over a decade, and now you live in the Crystal Palace area. Would you say that Ghettoville was inspired by living in South London? I mean, since being in London, I’ve spent all my time in South London, so yeah, it was. But it was also influenced by the Midlands, where I’m actually from—the UK, really. Where I’m from is the Black Country, and it’s much more sort of industrial, working class. Lots of little, quaint canals and stuff like that—it’s much more of a silent existence. I think my music responds to that ambience as much as the busyness of London.
If Ghettoville is a place, what kind of place are you imagining? It’s like being sort of homeless—like being homeless but having a laptop, and playing with music software all day, and with your dog and whatever, and it’s just raining all the time. And it’s like a seven-day week, but out of those seven days, only two days get sunlight, and the rest of it is just dark and street-lit and dank and soggy. I just think about soggy fabric and soggy cardboard and like concrete and gutters and rubbish and arguments coming from a house down the road, and kids hanging around on the streets or riding their scooters down the road. Ghettoville, you know what I mean?
Is there a sublime aspect to life in Ghettoville? Yeah, because it’s that position between having nothing and having everything, and still being completely connected, and having musical software. I guess there’s a subliminity in that—just in terms of how you present yourself, how you maintain your dignity, how you survive.
How would you say that the record compares to your 2008 album, Hazyville, which you are calling Ghettoville’s companion piece? It’s very similar to Hazyville—the only difference is is that time has become this sort of vortex. It’s like that vortex sort of thing. I was younger when I wrote Hazyville, and I couldn’t really see that much in front of me. There was never really the expectation of, Oh, I’m going to be traveling around the world and playing here and here and here. It would have been nice if that happened, but I was writing purely for myself. So I think Hazyville is much more pure in its essence, whereas Ghettoville has been really pulled through the night. It’s like getting to the other side really, and seeing what’s left of you: not much, you know? I wanted Ghettoville to be a stark portrayal of what it can be like to be a musician making this sort of music and having to [deal] with how people respond to your work.
Everyone is probably asking you about that statement you wrote where you hinted that this would be the last record you’d create under the Actress moniker. You’ve also suggested in some recent interviews that it might not be, so I’m interested in how one might read that declaration from an artistic perspective, if not from a literal one. I don’t really do things to get a rise [out of people], even though it might seem that way. I wrote that statement at a point where I really did feel like that, though to be honest with you, I feel like that daily. I wrote this album almost a year ago. I’m already somewhere else completely, but I’m just going to say it how it is: that’s how I was feeling. The amount of times that I’ve been compressed in the airplane, traveling for hours and hours on no sleep at all and then going to a completely alien place, talking to people who don’t necessarily speak the same language, having to be focused on communicating socially but also focused on performing, and then getting back home and having to get back in the studio and actually do my work. The psychological battering that you get from that is quite profound. And so you just use it, you put it back into the work—you don’t ignore it.
How would you respond to the observation that this Actress record is a particularly challenging one? Even though I feel like I am a perfectionist, I’m not looking to create a perfect listening experience for somebody. I want to investigate contrasts in sound, I want to investigate different tonality ideas, I want to minimize stuff, take stuff away and see how it sounds. I really want to play with what my influences were— whether it’s techno, electro, hip-hop, noise, soul, reggae, dub—but also offer something a bit wild, you know? Something that is like a bit off-map, in terms of how it’s to be received or picked at or whatever.
The fact is also that I would like to think that I’m sorta Van Gogh-esque in terms of being like, Oh my god! It’s all too much! I am going to chop off a limb! But then there’s this other side of me that’s like, Nah, that’s completely stupid. I just love art generally. And really, this is the way that Damien Hirst reacts with his art, and the way that Herring reacted with his art, and Basquiat, and Matisse, and all these classic artists going back to Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo especially, because if you consider how many pieces of work he actually finished, in comparison to all the works he did which were really beautiful and really intricate but totally incomplete—creating diagrams with potential machines that eventually… Obviously, him in 2013 would be like, SHIT! I thought of that fucking hundreds of years ago; I just didn’t have a Macintosh computer to really sort of hammer out my ideas correctly. There’s nothing wrong with doing something that is unfinished, so long as you have at least three or four pieces which are just amazing, flawless, perfect. All those little ideas are there to get you to those really amazing deas. My last four albums run along that sort of idea really, where amongst that catalog there’s probably three songs which are like, This is what I was working towards. And then the rest is sort of sketches, which sort of allude to where I want to go.
If you’re an artist who’s interested in process, then that’s interesting in itself—to show the sketch. Yeah, I think so. I would also hope that other people are inspired by what it is that I’m trying to do, and maybe take what I’m trying to do and do it better, take it to a different place. That’s what happens in music. I was really into the Detroit sound and Detroit artists, but I didn’t want to do shit interpretations or regurgitate the same ideas. And then I had this technology—I was working with different software, and I was working in ways that they wanted to be working, so I was able to do different things that maybe they would have loved to have done at that particular time. And also, I was probably sort of approaching the construction of songs in a completely weird way—I was thinking about like toys, or little mechanics, or little things to sort of play with.
I was reading an interview you did where described the Actress persona as being analogous to a performer who is reading a script, but then personalizing that script. That’s an interesting way of talking about electronic music, too. What is the Actress character doing on this record? You know how stockbrokers stimulate the market with more money to maintain a specific structure? I guess in a different way, I’m crashing the market, because what happens when you crash the market is that you influence a different mindset, so people become a bit more frugal with their money, or less houses come on the market, or house prices just completely disappear, or people lose their jobs. And when people lose their jobs, they either have to go on benefit systems or they have to find a new career. And often that new career is the best thing that could have happened to them.
In your interview with Pitchfork’s Larry Fitzmaurice, you said were dealing with musical perception—the idea that, say, what the listener is perceives as a bassline is not necessarily a bassline. What I mean by that is when you structure the sounds, if you’re working the way that I do, a bassline just forms. A bassline to someone would be to sit down at a sequencer and be like, do do do do do. Whereas for me, to put some sounds together, the shape of the sound informs the way that the bass frequencies want to move. For instance, “Our,” which probably lasts two minutes, has no inherent structure as such. It’s two melodies, bouncing off [eachother in] a simple, wood-blocky ricochet, and then a really sort of muffled kick, and then me with a sort of healing voice going underneath. The mechanism of that particular track—you’re not considering bass, you’re not even necessarily considering melody as such. It’s just a different sort of glow, I guess.
Some people have pointed out that the album transitions from something that sounds more textural, more abstract, into something that feels a bit more poppy, a bit more human, full of vocal samples. Do you experience one when you listen to it? It is a bit of a trip really. There’s a track on there called “Street Corp,” which is the sound of getting on a plane. Like that moment when you’re on a plane, and the guys outside, they’ve got the petrol going, and then the plane starts its engines, and the internal sound is like a wormhole like, wrooooomwrooooowroom. I wanted people to get a sense of that wormhole that I travel through, that sense of dead air, and dead space, artificial air—all that sort of waking up and sort of not being able to move. Blood flow just like shot to pieces. All of that—I want people to feel my pain basically, and that’s what a lot of the album’s about. The respite tracks are really moments where I’ve had a bit of time in the studio, and it’s fucking decent weather, and the sun’s out. Oh, blue skies today, I’m going to make a really beautiful song. But it will be tinged by like the previous work, and so it will never be so euphoric or anything like that. It will always be slightly informed by the previous two tracks, where it was grim and grey and dark.
Do you feel like there’s anything that you want people to think about when they’re listening to this? As an artist, I’m precious about my music, but I’m not really precious about how people view it. If there is one sort of profound moral, though, it’s just to consider other people a bit more. If you’re doing alright, and you’ve got a decent job and you get paid, and you’ve got a home to go to, and you’ve got friends that you can chill out with and have a drink with and be warm or whatever, then that’s amazing. But the stark reality is that there’s people out there who just don’t have that. And it’s not that you should have this mad sympathy for them, because they survive as well—they’ll survive even the harshest conditions. But just to pay a thought to it—say hello, you know? Just a hello makes people feel so much better. A smile—that’s all you need to do.