After 'Splazsh' made him an underground star, Darren Cunningham returns to the spotlight with 'RIP'
Words Alex Denney
Illustration Alice Devine
The door to Actress’ studio opens like a magic portal onto a scrappy east London thoroughfare, and Darren Cunningham ushers us through. Inside the first-floor digs, shabby decor jostles with the trappings of a distinctly modern sensibility — electronic gear, a book of writings by Chinese artist/political activist Ai Weiwei, framed Matisse and Basquiat prints, scattered set squares and bits of graph paper.
In the middle of this oddly harmonious clutter, Cunningham sits in a flash leather jacket, gaze trained on a spot somewhere in the middle distance. Like almost every producer of note nowadays, he doesn’t really ‘do’ interviews. But few inspire curiosity like the Wolverhampton-born brains behind Splazsh, whose work under the Actress moniker suggests a serious and enquiring intellect, lurking under a disorienting range of styles. Even more intriguingly, it’s known that Cunningham was previously a footballer due to embark on a career with West Bromwich Albion, before injury forced him to retire from the sport at the age of 19 (a “crushing decision to make,” he says). What business, our inner snob demands to know, could a one-time professional hoofer of balls have making music as obtuse, as formally brilliant as this?
Because make no mistake, Actress’ two long players to date — 2008’s Hazyville and the aforementioned Splazsh (released via Honest Jon’s and named Wire magazine’s album of 2011) — are the works of your card-carrying modern mystic, a torch that’s been carried by electronic producers from techno pioneers like Kevin Davis and Wolfgang Voigt to latter-day seekers like Flying Lotus and Dan Lopatin in his Oneohtrix Point Never guise. Now a third album is arriving in the shape of RIP, and a press release signals its author’s lofty intent to an almost comical degree: amid talk of spiritual forebears in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Jamie James’ The Music Of The Spheres — a Gnostic tract exploring the parallels between music and science — Cunningham describes the record’s genesis thusly: “It’s like painting with button and sliders… Melting and dripping, seeping yourself liquid into the machinery.
But what does any of it mean? And how did Cunningham arrive at such an obscure methodology? Perhaps an anecdote about the album’s sleeve — an abstract image of a praying man in black-and-white — will help shed some light on the matter. Says Cunningham: “That image came to me in a dream. Basically, there’s a track on the record called ‘Uriel’s Black Harp’ which I had a dream about [Uriel is an angel linked in mythology with sin who serves as ‘the eyes of God’ in Paradise Lost]. So basically I drew this picture [grabs a pencil and starts sketching a body laid out on a plinth], and then I started fucking about, drawing some triangles within the shape of the image, and something started to emerge. For me that’s how things happen. It’s these lucid awakenings, a vision of where things are going.”
Such mystical talk could easily be off-putting, but the pursuit of hidden geometries is key to Actress’ artistic approach. A self-professed “good lad” and two-step aficionado during his playing career, Cunningham’s first serious contact with the electronic music world came when he began investigating early Detroit techno and classic house at home in Wolves, studying producers’ techniques and gradually “working towards my own vision”. An early mixtape submitted to Muzik magazine as part of their Bedroom Bedlam series was singled out for praise, and Cunningham moved to London shortly afterwards to soak up the myriad sounds the capital had to offer. Founding Werk as a club night in 2000 with Ben Casey and Gavin Weale, the venture soon gave rise to a label counterpart which gained cult recognition through releases from Lukid, Lone, Starkey and Zomby among others.
Early self-made productions like 2004’s ‘No Tricks’ 12” and Hazyville (both put out on Werk) evinced a curious and outsider-ish sensibility, but it was Splazsh which was the real game-changer for Cunningham, as a set that’s been spoken about in the same breathless terms as Burial’s Untrue. The record’s achievement lay in drawing on disparate threads on the dance music continuum — Drexciya’s dystopian electro and ghostly, Gas-like ambient tech, garage, dubstep and beyond — and locating the internal consistencies to make them mesh as a whole. RIP, however, increasingly floats free of mind/body exigencies to create a record — closer in spirit to “sound art” than anything you might hear in a club — that revels in a sublime sense of unearthliness, from ‘Ascending’’s inverted beats and cloud-mist textures to ‘Marble Plexus’, which sounds like god’s own techno party heard through a wall, and on to sulphur-reeking cuts like the excellent ‘Shadow From Tartarus’ and ‘Tree Of Knowledge’. The whole thing glows like freshly mangled spaceship parts found in the desert at night. But why call it RIP? What are we supposed to be mourning here?
“Well I mean, the thing is we’re all dead anyway,” says Cunningham, his still-prominent West Midlands burr lending the statement a depressive twang he most likely didn’t intend. “There’s only one guarantee in life and that’s that we’re all gonna be dead — you can’t get definitive answers to many questions but that’s one certainty.
“But the record covers a whole load of different themes. It covers fear, it covers loss, death, spirituality, sin, repentance, magic, a certain black art… What I do isn’t really for the general consumption, I’m always thinking about that person out there somewhere who probably isn’t totally tuned into the internet all the time, who’s in their own world kind of figuring out shit — you know sometimes when you hear a piece of music and it just clicks? Essentially that’s what my music is for. It’s not for the magazines. Magazines love talking about it ’cos it’s a record that really does demand attention, it’s quite vast in terms of what I’m trying to talk about. That’s why I haven’t fucking finished Paradise Lost, ’cos one page is a novel really, so it’s quite deep but it’s quite romantic at the same time… It’s pretty sick to be honest with you.”
Cunningham is not one to shy away from such favourable assessments of his own work, and listening to him talk we’re struck by the odd mixture of ego-talk and spirit-minded musings in his patter. He’s full of surprises like that, in fact: one description of the “oblique strategies” employed for the making of RIP (recorded at home in Crystal Palace before he bought the new studio) mixes mathematical techno-babble with the sort of randomising techniques once favoured by dada and surrealist artists:
“It’s all based on decisions. I’ll write down notes, I’ll subdivide them, I’ll work out combinations, I’ll make music based on a Scrabble game that I’ve won. If there’s a certain number of squares, or whatever words you’ve made I’ll input it into the drum machine, or certain words correlate to a note. It’s these oblique strategies that I’m talking about when you’re experimenting and you’ve got a lot of time on your hands (laughs) to actually delve in on that level, you can come up with interesting things.”
Although Cunningham’s output in the past has tended to confuse the hell out of most DJs, his work has found favour with the high-profile likes of Richie Hawtin, Theo Parrish, and Moodymann in clubs, while his own sets are as acclaimed as they are difficult (stories abound of his playing long sections of beatless noise to packed rooms at 4am). While admitting he found it easier to get into “the kind of mindset” required to write music that would work in a dancefloor environment when he was younger, Cunningham is adamant that zeroing in on a more idiosyncratic approach was always part of the game plan: “Even in the beginning I’d be listening to Gabriel Fauré [French composer whose Requiem Cunningham cites as an influence on RIP] and thinking, ‘I wanna make shit like that. I want to make cool, classical stuff for a modern generation so they get it on a different level’.
“I think people should be intelligent enough to say what’s going on here is someone who just… who just… doesn’t give a fuck, basically. Ha-ha! You need to understand, the way I approach music isn’t gonna be like your average person at all. I smoke a lot of weed, or I used to — I don’t smoke as much these days ’cos it influences the way you work. If you’re hazy all the time you’re gonna make hazy shit. But if you reel it in a bit you’re gonna get a bit more clarity, and I think this record has much more sharpness of voice, there’s more of a wispiness, more of a lightness to it. And you need to do that if you want to involve yourself as an artist.”
Perhaps it’s this committed approach that’s allowed Cunningham to flourish — albeit only briefly as a footballer — in both his chosen professions to date. Which brings us neatly to another point. How many people are lucky enough to be talented in their two main areas of interest in life? Cunningham comes over uncharacteristically modest.
“The thing is, everyone’s gifted. I dunno if everyone’s given a specific gift per se, but the thing is once I’m fascinated by something I become obsessed to actually master it and improve myself and practise incessantly. I’m not classically trained. I don’t have the ability to sit at a piano and go, ‘Let me show you my repertoire’. But I think if anybody really wanted to… You just have to really look inside yourself, and turn yourself inside out in terms of what it is you feel you have to say musically.” Cunningham pauses, furrows his brow a little. “But I mean, I do spend a lot of time scratching my own balls.”