I post below the first part of the full transcription of an interview I did with Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, for this month’s issue of Dazed and Confused. In the print version (online here with an intriguing piece of film), the interview was given a fictionalised framework, presented as the notes of a therapeutic interview undertaken by a renegade psychotherapist, a conceit that came about because I’d been teaching Freud that week and because both Darren and Dazed editor Rod Stanley were keen to do something a bit different from a standard Q&A. I suspect the charade, such as it was, has now run its course but I hope it gave some amusement to someone somewhere. It’s the sort of thing I really enjoy doing and love to read but I’m sure it is just as likely to cause irritation and bewilderment with those who just want a proper interview. I was also keen to allow Darren’s words free reign and the timestamps were a way of smearing a digital tech aesthetic on to what is, after all, just the written down words produced by two friends shooting the breeze. It is presented warts and all, my own gibberings about t-shirts and philosophy of science unexcised.
The interview was in advance of Darren’s album R.I.P. which was released by Honest Jon’s last week. I was in complete agreement with The Wire magazine, who voted Splazsh their best record of 2011. Despite having known Darren for some time, it completely blindsided me. Hearing something so idiosyncratic, so immediately sui generis, is a rare thing. There are few whose styles are immediately recognisable and doing something new in techno/electronic music, as has been noted in recent theoretical forays, is no easy matter. And yet Splazsh did. It was in the heavy growl in the bass, the disregard for structural resolution, the sense of machined groove that might just have been the machines themselves, grooving.
I’ve kept going back to Splazsh, and it has kept rewarding, as I suspect it has for many, because Darren’s reputation has continued to grow – some judiciously given away tracks on twitter, some reportedly awesome live appearances and participation in a number of intriguing projects have done no harm. I guess R.I.P. was a nerve-wracking prospect with a considerable weight of expectation upon it but that expectation has been exceeded. It is a different beast and it progresses the Actress aesthetic with confidence and elan. I’m not sure I know what a polyrhythm is, technically, but there’s some very interesting rythmic stuff going on here that seems to proliferate in the way I imagine polyrhythms do. There are treated piano pieces. Where you might have been hearing Underground Resistance in Splazsh, you might be hearing a bit of Aphex coming through in R.I.P.: there are pieces that might be refugees from SAW. The bass is still there, the insistent analogue funk still rides a lowrider, but the beats are more muted and the varied texture also opens up an alternative route into all things hypnos.
We met at the Jeremy Deller show at the Heyward, which is a joyous thing. We sat for a free cup of tea at the transport cafe in the middle of the space. I started recording after Darren had started talking, but I had asked him about the rave memorabilia in the opening room of the Deller show.
It is just like things, it is just that overwhelming knowing that stuff is going on, your lot are a bit too young, but there is already this new cycle going on and it is just picking you up and for me it was like computers, you start feeling computers coming into it. You always kind of, the vision from that country, the vision of that country where I am from is already quite dark and Britain, the Midlands and the South is quite dark mainly but with the computers all of the sudden you just have these neon dreams and yellows and blues and around you have this Acid House music going on from the older kids and stuff. You are just sitting at your computer just programming stuff and you are just like: ‘Wow, what’s going on?’
So were you playing with ZX Spectrum?
No, my computer was the Amstrad464 so I am an Alan Sugar programming, my next-door neighbor did have a Spectrum so I got a bit of that and the school did have a BBC… so for me it was a pixel story, it was pixels and that. I remember, yeah with the 464 you would get this manual but it also had this software programming – just programs where you would type into a computer and press enter at the end of it and it would just do something. I remember Sundays used to be so boring: play a bit of football, go to church, play a bit of football, then what are you going to do? Spend it in your bedroom just typing out these software bulletins that Alan Sugar had given you. It was just mental.
And what would you get, like a graphic show at the end of it?
Once it would be like, it was a really intense binary and syntax, one letter and one space incorrect at the end of writing four pages software and it is just like: ‘syntax-error, you have got something wrong.’ So you would have to read back over and check through and you see this flashing light and be like checking back. It would explain to you at the start what the output would be if you got it correct and I remember if you got it correct you would go back and start saying this means that and that obviously means that so you would go back and re-arrange things and it would come out in a completely different way. So I think that is where the fascination started really, from a really naïve idea of typing down what someone has given you and seeing what the computer spits out and then it becomes language. Language data and you can kind of make sense of it. The UK is such a mad place and I think you really only start to realize – the penny just drops at really random times.
This show gives you an inclusive sense of how much is going on, all of these different traditions and how lively the folk tradition is. I suppose he is looking at the cultural side of it.
I suppose the start of it, the bedroom. A lot of things start in the bedroom. Everything starts in the bedroom! I suppose it is like the TV, the static and when I think about static I think about the Test cards and you don’t really get those moments of silence but noise at the same time and that is quite interesting. You do have to wonder, it is evolution, isn’t it, how do you deal with so much noise like today in today’s mass-production of content and there is so little silence in all of that here and I guess that is why I make music really. It is that, you know, I need to be able to find that silence from it and even if music isn’t silence in itself but the actual process of doing it can be silence.
Yes, it’s sort of the mastery of the sound.
Yeah, I don’t, well mastery comes from practices and practice. Start playing a sport and generally you can be quite shit at it really. I remember when I started playing football I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I just started playing football and that was it and then I did something: I remember going and scoring this goal, it was a really jammy goal, and I kicked it and it looped off (someone came and slid tackled and it looked off his foot) and the keeper came running forward and it looped over him into the back of the net. And, the euphoria I got from scoring my first goal was just unbelievable and from that point onwards I just couldn’t stop scoring goals, I just literarily couldn’t stop scoring goals and you know you develop a sense for it, okay, the ball hit his foot and then it spun up and the keeper was there and then the ball of a sudden he is running back and then the ball is doing this and then your brain just analyses trajectory and geometry within a such a quick duh-duh-duh-duh and then it’s like, all of a sudden, I get it, and it’s like the ball is round so obviously there are different points on a ball where I can kick to make it do this and it will do that and so, okay, I will just… so for me that is how the process always is and within that split second of analysis.
To what extent is it instinctual and to what extent is it applied analytic force?
I think I have only just now worked that out for myself but at the time it is more naïve, you just, you don’t really understand your brain, you don’t really understand how brains work and you just more interested in having fun and that happened and wow cool, brilliant. Now, I think, when you get a bit older you think it’s a bit more usual and you start applying the laws of physics. You go from Primary school to Secondary school and you start learning intense science and you look at objects and obviously there are links everywhere and you just start linking it all together and that is what instincts is really, it is that kind of dumbing down of your intelligence because, like I said, your brain is mad, in a sense it is too young to work it out but in a sense it has already worked it out. Whatever path you lead you pick up clues along the away and you have teachers who bring different elements into it and you start to philosophize on it a little bit and people throw little bits of data at you and it is for you to kind of either agree or disagree and find yourself in the middle, it is all that kind of logical processes and then trying to find answers, but then are there answers to anything really. That is why I like the idea of infinity, infinite trails and that is kind of what my music is about really, I don’t really approach music in a like: here’s a beginning, middle and end, because unless you are a producer and you have to make music for a particular market. , I guess you then approach it in that way. I try and approach music from a sense of pure sound and a fascination with what it does.
That is something I particularly love about Splash: it quite often seems like the processes are set running and where you are, where the composer is in that process doesn’t really matter, the thing just runs its course. I just love the tracks when it is like “yeah, that’s done”: you never hear that on records and I really enjoyed hearing that in this one. Between The Shadow from Tartarus and Tree of Knowledge it just stops dead, there’s that kind of sharp cut. It is interesting to read your remarks that you are part of, you feel, I am going to quote your own words back at you know, from the press release: ‘I am just an instrument, I am completely dead when I write.’
You can take that literally or whatever, I obviously don’t mean it literally, I’m not dead when I write. I guess what I am trying to say there, that for me I try and think more about time that anything else, the ideas of time, the creative process isn’t just about the music, it can’t be, it is about my, it is about the reasons why I write music, about how it is possible for me to write music. I don’t have any training as such. I don’t know how to play the piano, really and it is like that kind of thing. How is it possible? It makes sense to me, but how is it possible? And so yeah questions start from there and for me it becomes something different, and firstly, how you have been brought up. I have been brought up to be not overly religious and not God-fearing either but very church most Sundays.
Yeah, exactly, heritage based really. And, so obviously the idea of God is very much there but the problem with me is that although I do practice every now and again I am also a rebel generally, you know what I mean. So often my sinful delights get in the way of the clarity of possibilities and so it is like I can do these music – so is it a gift? Is football a gift? But I cant play football anymore so is that gift taken away from me? Was it taken away from en for any particular reason? I can’t play football anymore so how do I apply the idea of playing football into the idea of making music? So you kind of apply it, but that happens naturally because that is who you are. So these are the kind of things that are always going on when you are playing and that is what I don’t do interviews because I don’t really like the idea of selling an idea, selling how, I just don’t like the idea of selling full-stop of that kind of thing, that buy my records sort of thing – I hate that shit. Because, to be honest with you, I am sharing my music, just about. If it was up to me and I could earn a lot of money without letting people hear what I am doing I would probably wouldn’t put that much stuff out to be honest with you because it is for my own healing, for my own personal ego, it is for my own understanding. Having said that that when you do share it with people you do start to understand more, essentially. I don’t really care about what critics think too much because I am my own judge really, it is like I am never really going to put something out if I think it is shit and rubbish. So I am generally always happy when I pit something out but it is interesting to see how it is going to be perceived but more interestingly I am interested in what other peoples belief systems are and it is like I did a gig not long ago and I saw this guy and he was wearing a t-shirt and it was basically saying that he was a n atheist and I remember just for some reason being really offended by this. For some reason, I was really offended by it! I was like you don’t believe in anything, or is it like you just don’t believe it God – is that what the t-shirt is trying to say? And then obviously in this exhibition and in the toilets there was some kind of and that sort of thing is a challenge.
I used to wear a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Jesus hates me’ – when you are younger and you used to wear slogans without really thinking – and I got stopped by this guy at a cash point who was just like: ‘He doesn’t, you know.’ From that day on I never wore it again. I was just like, I don’t actually mean this, I am just wearing it as a general ‘fuck you.’
I think things like that happen you know, I guess the symbolism in that is that you stopped wearing the t-shirt.
Once I got called on it I realized what it was.
What did you think it was?
It was cynical.
But what did him saying that mean to you?
I realized that I didn’t… it wasn’t a belief, it was just a slogan and seeing that it acted in the world, well, that was just like saying it….
That is interesting because you generally see t-shirts that project a message almost more to other people than to themselves, you know what I mean?
You need to bear that in mind when you wear a t-shirt. What was the atheist guy’s t-shirt?
It was just like, I can’t remember exactly what it said, it just was like, what I am offended by, you walk around, you just see beauty everyday and I am in paradise and that’s how I feel all the time and it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I am feeling great all of the time I can feel shit, but I generally just see beauty in everything and everyone really. So, it was a really kind of reflex kind of thing. The thing is I am really into science as well and the thing about science is that it requires definitive answers to make something right or wrong it requires a definitive answer and I all see it as a big like understanding game: what is it? How is it? How did it become? How? Why? What? All of the time. I just can’t see how you can have a definitive answer to it when as a human it is really flawed.
Science is part of a social contract and we all have to accept that its claims on truth are necessarily limited by what we, where we make our translation from world to model and from there to… Take for example mathematics, geometry is a model of the real world and it is one that works and it maps it well but we can’t, we kind of take it, it is now given this privileged position of pure truth – not so! At the edge of science you have a lot of theory and essentially this is where the fuzz happens at the edge of science. You get this hypothesis put up and it stands until it is disproven – it has to be testable but until someone disproves it… So something like String Theory is an interesting one. We are trying to test it at the moment but we are not there.
It is a manipulation. It is fascinating to me that we probably live for a maximum of about 80 years – 90 year or something like that but we have sent like spaceships to check out a planet that is 40,000 light-years away and it just makes your life so much short, absolutely nothing. It is just evolution of the brain and people playing God at different times and again manipulation. I don’t know fully the game of science in the end. I say game because I think it is easy to kind of start, kind of play games – people do it in music all the time. Aphex is just doing it in music videos and that kind of thing and music in itself it is a science and in itself it is a drug of some sort and even though it doesn’t exist as such it is just… it is amazing really, someone can be dead, like Bob Marley for instance, but you are likely to hear is voice everywhere at a given time in the world every day. I don’t know if it’s his soul but his being still exists even though his body has passed and he continues to influence and manipulate…
And still occupy some physical space because the wave-form of his voice is getting pumped out of speakers.
It is mad. This is why I wake up in paradise because I just think it is amazing that however this shit is put together it is just amazing, it is just infinitely amazing to me and it just fascinates me by it all the time.
A sense of the sublime?
That would lead on quite naturally to Milton.
I personally don’t know that much about Milton.
Is that to come at it as process again? There is obviously a thematic carry across, you sort of went to that because you felt that… Why did you go to that?
I went to that because I didn’t want to go to the bible because I think that the bible can be a little bit of a hindrance. I have never read the bible as such but it was always present, there was always the presence of the bible and I dint really want to go to the bible because it can become a little bit too much God preach-y shit and I didn’t want that and obviously that aspect is there but what I did want to do and what I think music is and my job in a sense, as what it is now, is more in a sense is about literature and sound art and sound literature. Just through research while I was writing the album I just stumbled across Paradise Lost and I had never heard of the book before and I was like firstly I will by the book from Amazon and wait for it to arrive and in that space I did a little bit of research on who Milton was and you just start reading about this guy and you are just like: ‘okay then this is a serious dude, obviously extremely intelligent and he lived in like the 1600s – that’s ages ago. You read one page of Paradise Lost and one page is like a novel for most people, just the way the words are constructed. It takes me about, I read about a paragraph a day, I can just about read a paragraph a day, it is intense, I probably won’t finish it until next year sometimes. It seems right because not that I think reading Paradise Lost is a shortcut to reading the bible because it obviously isn’t but it give it a more of a Romantic spin I think. It gives it a bit more because it is placed within his time zone rather than BC or AD or whatever when a lot of shit is going on in England and his life is under threat at times and he is doing a lot of traveling and meeting very important people and then I kind of think about that obviously around that time the clarity of God is a lot more intense than it is now and that is just a thing. How would this book been received then? The book I am reading now is obviously about that book he wrote and that’s what I kind of start thinking about, how did people received this book? And it was received amazingly, for me that is quite interesting.
Does Paradise Lost come just after the Republic? Was Cromwell still in charge at this point? So people are reading it in that context of we have already executed the King – who was God on Earth. Milton was a Republican and all for that.
He dictated most of it as well because he was blind.
Given you feel this sense of Sublime and waking up in Paradise, reading about the loss of paradise for Satan, how do you feel about this?
That’s a hard one, loads of things run through my mind on that one: is Satan God? Is Satan God’s conscience? Is it a half and half sort of thing? You know how you can be like the most lovely person but there is that aspect – Satan is a very interesting one. Obviously again, I haven’t finished Paradise Lost but firstly I think he is depicted as a hero and then progressively his armor falls and he becomes…and I think that is a fair representation of what Satan can be. There is that canniness and a very, obviously via the serpent, but an easy way to corrupt, seduce and tempt. But, these are I kind of human desires anyway so that was a tricky one and that is why one of the reasons why I abruptly put Shadow of Tarturus next to Serpents because obviously the serpent is, you should be experiencing the serpent in a sort of dream state, almost, because the serpent approaches Eve while she is sleeping I think so at this point she should be dreaming, so at this point when the Devil arrives it is like you have woken up basically. I think it always, for me, it is about life is always a bit like that, it is almost a bit like a dream and then all of a sudden something hits you, like death – death can change things just like that [he clicks his fingers] and change your life. That is why the topic of death is, not necessarily an interesting one, but, you can’t have any topic without it being based on death because really you are going to die and that is one of the things we definitely know is going to happen.
The thing is about art is you can document it, you can record it. That is a magical thing really – being able to archive stuff, the amount of time that stuff has lasted.
We were talking about the sleep state; when you are writing a track, what is the relationship to that kind of state. Are you trying to work towards this state with this kind of music?
I think it comes more naturally and that is why I use the sense that I am completely dead when I am writing. I try and get my mind in a complete state of some sort of purity, whether that is an ethereal or whether that is a nature based purity, or whether that is a water based purity, or whether that is a concrete based purity, or whether it is a completely dark and murky sense of purity – I try and approach things from that sort of angle. I can be profound but I think humour is also important and it is why I use Dr Claw as my Twitter because the way that I see Dr Claw is someone who is essentially quite evil but he never succeeds really. He is always outwitted by these idiots in Inspector Gadget and there is something just brilliant about that for me and it is just amazing that they can create a program with a soundtrack by Shuki Levy and some of the soundtrack is quite dark, but how you can lighten the tone and the mood through understanding how the characters work within the script is just brilliant I think.
Your tweets can be quite indecipherable, intriguing though. I think ‘it is almost like he is automatically reproducing chunks of text’ and then I realized you had been hacked, – it literarily was a robot reproducing chunks of text. But, you did give away some tracks through twitter, that is an interesting distribution mode, or is there a rationale behind that one?
Yeah, I guess some of the rationale is just kind of lay the bed a bit or something that can be quite deep and testing as a listen. So, I kind of have to work within frames of lead times and delivery and masters and to kind of release them so I think it is important to really about of a runway for something that can be quite deep. But, at the same time it is about finding new ways of distributing music. I don’t have to make money out of everything that I do, its not essential. I make music all the time so I can say: I don’t mind giving some of that away. Obviously, my published doesn’t like it very much but Fuck them as far as I can say – I write the music! So, yeah, there is a kind of rationale behind it and to test the water on certain tracks. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing if it wasn’t for people going out and buying my records, so it is for me about giving something back as well and the relationship between the artist and the people that support you is important one and you do have to give back and keep that relationship sweet and hopefully people stick – stick is not the right word- it keeps me in the job so I can continue. it is not really pre-meditated in anyway.
The other thing is that there is a progression of different kind of tones and obviously there is continuity. There is a kind of restrained funk and a tension that really appeals to me, that is mainly on the rhythm-based things. This is perhaps an important techno thing… there is a kind of tightness.
Yes and no, I think for me I love dancing and I am a great dancer – I am not a great dancer, I’m a good dancer, I know people who are better dancers than me and I like a good party and I think going back to when everyone else was raving and my generation was at home on their computers I think my generation as such has never really had that tribal thing where they go to a rave and you just loose it and blah blah and that is almost like a weekend-ly thing. You pick up that rhythm and you kind of tribal sense of dancing and loosing it and dah dah dah and obviously there has been certain bills that have closed down nightclubs and that sort of thing and what you generally find now where I am of that age that I probably don’t go clubbing as much as I used too. That tightness is a representation of that and the muted kicks is also a representation of that because I am making tracks in my studio which is at home and it is not a dance-floor, so the music has to work within the space as far as I am concerned. For me, if I was a dance DJ and I was buying records to make people dance then I would be tuned and ready to make music that was [makes bass beat noise] and because I enjoy staying at home and I enjoy smoking weed and I enjoy walking around and chilling generally and because of what weed can do to you sometimes, it can make you quite paranoid or it can make you be quite at certain times or it can make you feel euphoric or it can make you feel a little bit tense about certain situations or vibes or whatever, it goes into the music essentially. I do become a little bit nervous and wary when I am being interviewed (particularly in public places) I do get nervous about that at certain times. But, coming back to who I am – I am a footballer and I have been in environments where I am in rooms where there is a huge amount of testosterone going on and I have been in stadiums where a managers neck is on the line and the crowd is going ballistic at him outside the doors like literarily baying for blood. I have been in that situation where you have 20,000 people just like chanting or whatever, it is like I am used to…
Is that as a player?
Yes, absolutely. When Alan Buckley was not getting the right results the crowd were going absolutely mental. Obviously I come from playing for West Brom and Wolverhampton and whatever and being from Wolverhampton and playing for West Brom you get a lot of stick for doing that around town. It builds your character. I just try and put every bit of emotion into the music and then I do occasionally think about how people will feel it and then sometimes I do have insecurities. Like, on Splazsh I did have some insecurities because I didn’t expect it to get so big and even though I am proud of it there are certainly same kind of tracks on it that I am like: how are people going to react to that? I am always writing to think of people’s well being basically and it is like because I know personally when you get hooked into music and you can get hooked in completely mad ways, but that is probably just my a paranoia coming through – it is really intense, or is it really that intense? Listen to me, it is fine, just get one with what you are doing. so, yeah with Rest in Peace there was a kind of decision to make something that demonstrated a more of a come-down, ambient tone than Splazsh, more like Red Matter, it just takes whatever things you got off the back of that album and caresses it a bit and softens it a bit and keeping that kind of tension in terms of the title name and the track titles and blah blah and sprinkling it with things that are a bit more, I just want to transcend people, give them that state, illumination. As I said I am very fortunate to have a lot of time to be in this paradise and to get to walk around and not a lot of people do as they are in the grind.