Fred Gibson, the London producer better known as Fred Again.., is a master at cultivating joy. At the onset of the pandemic, he began accumulating found samples and voice notes from across the expanses of the internet, assembling these inherently 2020 dispatches into what eventually became his debut album, Actual Life. In the 18 months following its release, he’s amassed a battalion of devoted listeners, sold out rooms across the globe, unleashed a number of heavy-hitting collaborations in an ongoing playlist titled “USB,” and dropped two sequel albums, the second of which — Actual Life 3 — arrives this week.
The record serves as a culmination of the love and grief that have shaped Fred’s life over the past year; though neither are tethered to any sort of linearity, they inevitably collide, manifesting in intermittent surges of club gospel catharsis. After having teased much of Actual Life 3 at his viral Boiler Room set, it’s easily his most hotly anticipated work to date. It also marks the end of the Actual Life project as it stands now. Days before his new record’s release, Fred told me why he’s ready to pivot from documenting life via dance music, what he’s learned from working with Brian Eno and Four Tet, and where he’s headed next.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
What’s interesting to me about the Actual Life project is that the stories on these records keep expanding. Actual Life 3 feels like the natural evolution of what you’ve been doing in the past few years. When did the seed start to develop for this project?
Fred Again..: It was a New Year’s sort of energy. I find those times of cross-cultural synchronicity really powerful. Obviously, you have different New Year’s in different cultures. But fundamentally, on January 1, there’s a widespread feeling that’s quite reflective. I don’t actually know if I started purposely or if it just happened. It was just the beginning of wanting to make a record. I didn’t know when I was starting it that it would be the last one of this trilogy, but it became clear halfway through that it was time to draw a line in the sand.
Wait, I did not know this. This is the final one?
I’m not saying forever, but I know I need to draw a line after this one because they’re about the same thing, and it’s very intense to write about, and I needed to allow myself to breathe from it for a second so I could move forward. It’s not some dramatic end; it’s just wanting to clarify that was then and move into now.
The stakes are very palpable in your songwriting and in your music. In our last interview, we spoke about grief’s impact on Actual Life 2, and that’s definitely carried over into 3. How has the process of growing through grief shaped this album?
With [grief] being a nonlinear experience, it might be that I make an album in seven years time that feels like it’s most in the grips of this thing. I hope and I think what I’m trying to do with this record is portray some type of fixed acceptance of that thing that doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. It’s something that becomes you and has peaks and troughs: it becomes life.
Collaboration has been synonymous with this project. You’ve shared bits of its creation on social media, and I reckon close friends such as Kieran Hebden [(Four Tet)] have helped galvanize certain aspects of it.
All of the records have been made with my best friends. I made a lot of the first one with Joy Anonymous, who I live with and is one of my best friends, and my little brother, as well as the Parisi brothers, who are also two of my best friends, and people like Kieran and Jamie [xx]. That’s always fueled the music for me. Other human beings are infinitely more inspiring than anything else in the world.
You finished “Delilah (pull me out of this)” in McCarren Park in Williamsburg. I’ve quite often thought to myself in McCarren Park, “pull me out of this.” How did that song come together? It feels like one of the “aha” moments of this project.
I spent a lot of time making different [songs] around the “Delilah” vocal. There’s loads of versions I built around [that line]: “You know how to calm me down and pull me out of this.” That immediately felt important for me to hear on the record, so I put it in lots of different emotional frameworks to see what those lyrics sound like. The clarity came from the feeling of having a panic attack in a club: It goes from being the most perfect place for human interaction and joy and connection to being the most nightmarish place in the world if your mind starts going down a certain route. [You’re] reaching out for someone to pull you out of it. That story was important for me to tell. But fuck, man. We made so many versions of that tune. The big clarity for the very end was playing it in a rave in New York. We understood a lot better what needed to happen to it, so we went to the park the next day and finished it.
You’ve played such a variety of spaces over the past year. Have you been able to experience live music in the same way when you’re spending so much time doing it as your career?
I still go to clubs on my own a lot and wallflower in the corner and take it all in. But the main thing in my life is sitting on the river in London and watching people go by and, sometimes, making music. That’s my biggest inspiration: this strolling collage of humanity. So yes, a lot of things have changed [with] being able to play shows in different parts of the world. When I first put out the first record, I was changed forever by people’s messages about what it had meant to them and the stories of their life and how they’d allowed it into their space, and the shows have been a hyper-realized version of that. It’s real life. You can see the person at the show and you can meet them afterwards, and every song I make is endlessly inspired by that dialogue. I’m forever indebted to these people who make the music what it is.
Having accumulated so many songs over the past two years, how has your setlist shaped into what it is today? You have to make so many cuts just because I don’t know, there’s only so much time. What rises to the top for you as the through line?
The most important thing to me is telling a story in a way that feels as pure as possible, so [it’s about] what songs can support that narrative in the best way. We experimented a lot this summer. I don’t know what the through line is. I’m still working it out. We’ve been put in this incredibly fortunate position of lots of people wanting to come to the shows, so we need just make it fucking good.
Which of these songs have changed the most since playing them live and seeing how the audience responds to them?
We mash up “Angie (I’ve Been Lost)” [from the first Actual Life album] with a tune from this next record when we play it live. It’s gone from being a song we didn’t play in the set to being the most important moment. Being able to sing that with everyone means a lot.
How has your career felt post-Boiler Room? Your live career in particular, given that [your set] had this staggering response and galvanized more people to need to see this experience live.
I don’t totally know because we played shows before and we played shows after and I haven’t really noticed a difference, but there are surreal moments when I’m forced to acknowledge that something’s changed. When we put on the Brixton shows at the end of the year, Kieran being the sweetie that he is called like “Fred… there were 71,000 people in the queue for your tickets this morning.” I can’t ignore that wasn’t the case once. But in terms of the feeling in the room, I don’t think that’s changed, which I’m very grateful [for].
Going back and re-watching that Boiler Room — your concentration and the intensity of that moment — I’m curious how you prepare for a feat of endurance such as that one. Were you able to process that as it was happening?
It was very chaotic in the room. I was not well. I was off the back of five shows in a row going straight into that, and I hadn’t really drunk water. I forgot to do the obvious life things. And it was unbelievably hot. By the end, I was genuinely close to passing out, and it was only a bit over an hour. It’s not a proper five-hour DJ marathon set, but as you say, it was very intense and there was a feeling we built up in the room that we all sort of came up together. At the end, I was sat on the floor, like, “Oh my God, this is the closest I’ve been to an unconsensually unconscious man [sic]. So yeah, it was full-on.
I’m curious about the division between this album and what this album became and this ongoing USB era of tracks and where that dividing line revealed itself.
Halfway through the process of making the album, I realized I was approaching an end of sorts. I needed to do that; otherwise I was going into this vacuum of myself, and it wasn’t the healthiest thing to do. The USB side of things is a headspace of songmaking that I’ll always dip into sometimes. It isn’t as enrapturing and all-encompassing as an Actual Life record. It’s more like a tune I can make with friends. I’m sure at one point I’ll decide that I want to do another Actual Life record. Right now I’m finishing an album with Brian Eno, and that’s a different part of the headspace.
How has that process been? What have you learned from him?
I’m indebted to Brian for a lot of my music. When I was about to start going back to making my own music again a few years ago, he emailed me, like, “Alright, enough is enough. Go back to doing your stuff now, the stuff we did you were doing when we first met.” I always brought him the records as I was working on them, and there was always a strand that we worked on together that became something slightly different. I don’t quite understand it yet because I’m too inside it still, but it’s a more meditative space for the samples to exist in. It’s much slower and more breathable. But yes, the main Brian USP [(Unique Selling Proposition)] is that he is a kid, essentially. He plays every day in the studio. He’s retained a spirit of play that’s so admirable in a creative.
I love making music on tubes and trains, and the reason I think it still works on tour is because your brain goes into a state that is very conducive to a lot of good creative processes. You surrender a degree of control. You get onto some massive thing [that] drives for hundreds of miles, and you have no real control. But just by being sat in your chair, you’re achieving one of the things you need to do that day because you’re getting to wherever you need to go. That puts you into a liberated state of mind because you’re much more prone to being like “Alright, I’m already getting one thing done by sitting still, so I might as well mess around a bit.” [Trains] are cheat codes to creativity.
“The main thing in my life is sitting on the river in London and watching people go by and, sometimes, making music. That’s my biggest inspiration: this strolling collage of humanity.”
The first time I heard the “Clara (the night is dark)” sample, it was earth shattering. That song feels too weighty to not discuss. How did that one come together?
I think it was a random YouTube stumble. But as soon as I heard her say the words “Courage my soul and let us journey / Although the night was dark, it won’t be very long,” it was very powerful to me, and the unbelievable declaration style of how she sings is such an announcement. The other voice on that song, the spoken shouts, is my friend Senny. We were on a night out and she kept on shouting out — I don’t even know why; there were lots of people just saying things, [it was] chaos — “If you don’t know then don’t worry!” In the context of the Clara lyrics, I love the way the voices are so different: everything about the way they’re recorded and all the background noise — you can hear the night out [with] Senny. It was important to me at that moment in the record to show that I hadn’t given up.
I gather that a lot of your process is finding these samples and building structures around them. Have you ever built the structure and then found the sample to bring in?
There are moments when I’ll make a sketch one day [that] won’t become a whole song, but there’ll be something in it that stays in the back of my mind. If I’m working on another song months later, I might suddenly be like “Oh, do you remember that thing? Maybe I could put it on this.” So it does get blurrier, [but] usually I want everything to be driven by samples; that’s the emotional epicenter of any song I do.
When I was making the first record, I was saying to [Eno] that I was lost and second guessing myself too much, and I wasn’t getting into that play state we were talking about. And whilst I was explaining this to him, he dragged 300 things from his iTunes onto my hard drive. He was like “Okay, these are some random sketches I’ve made over the last 10 years. From now on, whenever you start a piece of music, you have to begin with one of these that you have no control over. You have to choose it at random and you just have to start.”
That forces you — instead of sitting there and being like “No, that’s not the best chord,” and you never even get going — to just drag something in. It might be one that you’re not even excited about initially, and you’re immediately like “Okay, what if I just took this one bar and looped it and slowed it down by 900%?” It liberates you and puts you in a much more exploratory mindset.
You’ve been so close with the music on this record for so long, and now it’s gonna belong to the world. What, right now, is the most listenable track for you? What can you go back and be like “Yeah, I fucking did that?”
There should be way more words for “proud” than there are, because “proud” is not what I mean here. Maybe there are and I don’t know them. I’m very something about “Me (Heavy)” off the first album. When I listen back, I’m like “Wow, I really can’t believe I did that.” I’m surprised at myself, I guess. I listen to that sometimes because it’s a helpful diary entry, a helpful anchor in the sand.
Speaking of anchors in the sand, have you had a chance to see Triangle of Sadness yet?
No. Someone was telling me about this the other day, which is that again?
It’s the movie about super rich people on a boat.
Why did this come up?
Because your song closes out the movie.
Oh, maybe that’s why it came up. Which song?
Jokes. Is it a good film?
Everyone loves it. I’ve not watched it yet because I have a weird thing about puke scenes, and there’s like a 10 minute intense puke scene. But I hear that it’s the sync of the year. Everyone who’s seen it is like “Oh my God, the way they end that movie with Fred again is crazy.” I’ll be curious to hear what you think.
Given that Actual Life Three is sort of the period dot on this chapter and the opening of what’s next, have you had a chance to consider what you want the legacy of this project to be?
No, and I think that’s probably on purpose, because worrying about the legacy of something puts me — and, I think, a lot of humans — into a state of mind that’s not constructive. All I’m interested in is if this, right now, is honest to me. I’m not trying to tick any other box, because as long as that’s the case, there’s no vacancy for regret. I know that even if in 10 years I make a totally different thing, I’ll know that was what that was then. That was the diary entry for that year or that month. It’s intrinsically sound to me, regardless of all the other things you can question. That’s all I’m interested in trying to do.