Speaking to Actress is an enlightening exercise. The 44-year-old is a man who knows a lot of things about a lot of things. His knowledge is broad and deep, delivered in a thoughtful, articulate manner, and his warm nature makes conversation comfortable. Mixmag catches up with the artist, also known as Darren J. Cunningham, while he’s walking around his local area near the Thames Barrier in East London. This is where he takes time out for himself, to physically detach from his computers and be away from the studio and other aspects of his life. It’s a privilege to be welcomed into what is essentially Actress’ ‘me time’.
“There's always something really inspiring around here to look out for. It's very industrial, it reminds me a lot of the Midlands,” he tells me, before going on to explain that this is where he might go for a run, do a “bit of a pump” on the outdoor gym, or simply walk around, taking it all in. More typically though, nowadays, he’ll be out discovering the local area and its many facets with his son. Actress is a father of two now, his youngest is one and his son is seven.
Fatherhood has been pivotal in his personal growth and he speaks about feeling blessed and grateful for the gift of parenthood a couple of times during our chat. “It’s such a privileged position to be in, to be given another opportunity to look at the world via a child’s gaze and these little paths that they take you down,” he says. “You have no idea about things until you have children. From the moment that they come into your life… it just strips away these layers.”
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He describes trying to set up the kid’s video game Minecraft with his son and, initially, not knowing how to do it - much to his son’s frustration (“He just thinks I know everything, but I don’t”). How they worked together to dig their first block, and how, within days, his son became proficient in the game, designing architecture and so on. He enthuses about witnessing the speed at which a child can learn, but also seeing first-hand what he calls “these intricate human steps through technology”, which he himself experienced - from the earliest interaction with his first computer (the iconic Amstrad CPC-464), to his continued relationship with technology and observing how that interface has impacted humanity. “[Seeing] how technology has evolved human aesthetics and movements and patterns of thought, that is my intersection into his life because he's just a massive gamer now and he's only seven,” he tells us.
This technological interface between humans and machines is an essential component of Actress’ creative process. The act of composing music via computers and electronic instruments is perhaps one of the clearest representations of the symbiotic relationship humans can have with technology. Becoming more acquainted with his studio equipment has provided a greater sense of ease and connection with Actress’ creative flow. As someone who rarely finds it difficult to be creative, he is always sketching, jamming and producing. However, getting comfortable and confident with the intricacies of the network of computers, synths and drum machines in his studio took some time.
“There's been occasions where I've had to completely change the studio, which has meant that I've had to spend more time reading manuals, fixing things and having to deal with things that aren't going right. And that impacts the creative process,” he explains. “Technically I can handle stuff but it takes me a bit longer than most people. I always wanted to just be flowing in terms of my creativity. I’m now at a place where I don't have to go into the instruction manual anymore”.
Recent developments in the evolution of Artificial Intelligence have impacted the zeitgeist of conversation across the globe. The human/computer interface has been ever-present since the early ’80s and, for some, AI poses a threat. Fears allude to AI “taking over”, putting people out of work and, in some of the more extreme circles, enslaving humanity. Actress, whose work in the field includes collaborating with ‘AI sprite’ Young Paint, addresses the fears and articulates a balanced response. “When somebody says takeover, what is it that they mean? Do they mean it's going to be some cyborg appearing through a black hole, like Terminator or something like that?” he quips. “You could say that there's a psychological takeover taking place at the moment, and this potentially feeds into the whole discussion around mental health.”
“Let's take dating, for instance,” he continues. “Relationships are very different these days, marriages are very different these days, people's outlooks on staying in monogamous relationships, open relationships… all of that has changed. And I would say a lot of that is down to technological subversion in many ways”. Behind all of this technology is humanity itself and, we both acknowledge, that it’s only as insidious, and potentially dangerous, as its maker allows it to be. “At the same time, it is all controlled by humans, which is the sinister side of it. It's very easy to manipulate people with technology, put it that way,” he concludes.
Throughout the interview, Actress’ field of reference remains broad; from YouTube clips of Sylvester Stallone (who is a far greater mind than most people realise), to Kandinsky and his art theory. Kandinsky in particular comes up when discussing the studio environment. For some artists, everything needs to be in place before they can begin to create, but Actress highlights that “chaos can be good”, citing Kandinsky and his work. “When an artist, who could seemingly be perceived as chaotic, can bring it back down to the point of a pencil, that, for me, is quite powerful. I took my lead from these types of artists, because they showed the way in terms of how it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the creative process, especially if you have too many tools at your disposal,” he says. “I do try to take my time to listen to those grandmasters about being focused in the moment and creativity.”
This connects us with his new album ‘LXXXVIII’, his ninth, where he says the process was a lot more fun than others. He cites ‘Ghettoville’ and 'Karma & Desire' as both being fraught, whereas, like ‘RIP’ and ‘Splazsh’, ‘LXXXVIII’ was a lot more enjoyable to write. Actress feels more fulfilled and prepared when going to the studio. “My music making has always been about walking through different levels and different doors,” he says. With his computers, of which there are eight (each with its own name, by the way), cleaned up and organised, and the studio now a space where he can get to work with ease, that all-important creative flow can be achieved. Game theory was a fundamental element of the album’s conception, with Actress implementing the study into the process. For those who are unaware, game theory studies interactive decision-making in games where the outcome for each participant depends on everyone’s actions. Players must take into account the choices of others when choosing their strategy. With regard to his studio, and the new album, game theory could connect back to the network of computers that form the nucleus of Actress’ creative space. Each one needing to take into account the action of the others, while also making its own contribution to the “game” - i.e. process of composition. Similarly, we could also consider the role that each of the tracks on the album plays within the wider context of this latest body of work and the interplay between those pieces of music. If ‘LXXXVIII’ is a game, what is the strategy of each track? How does each one respond to the others?
Listening to ‘LXXXVIII’, you can feel the sense of fun and pleasure that emanates from Actress’ studio experience into his creativity. There’s an air of playfulness in the way Actress utilises his influences, with a distinct reverberation of UK electronic music running through the album. Thematically, the number 88 is crucial to the LP and to Actress himself - he has an “8” tattooed on each of his hands. He has a strong interest in numerology and 88 is a powerful number for many reasons. The two eights represent infinity, while also being connected to power, balance, harmony, abundance and much more (to be clear: the offensive co-option is not a factor). “My whole aim is to be making music into infinity,” he says. This notion of the infinite, boundlessness, and legacy ties in to his desire to simply never stop.
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Driving him continuously at the core of his creativity is a self-prescribed duty to keep on doing it, inspired by artists who have achieved, and maintain, longevity at a high level. “I look at certain artists who’ve been doing it since the ’90s, and are still doing it, and maintaining a certain level,” he explains. “I think once you've committed yourself to a type of faculty, like music, or fine arts or things like that, you have an actual duty not to stop”. Actress goes on to describe receiving messages from fans, some of whom demand (sometimes gently, occasionally with more impassioned pleas) that he never stops. However, as he says himself, their demands are not necessary because he is duty bound to keep pushing on, for himself more than anything. “People will stop me and make that demand, but they don't actually need to, because more than anything else, I need to do it for myself,” he says. “I've always made music for myself, it can often be very, very satisfying. The challenge of it can be draining sometimes but the rewards are just amazing”.
Like many artists, perfectionism is a catalyst for Actress’ output. It’s the fuel behind a constant drive to create libraries, sounds and sketches, refining the results and striving for the ever elusive idea of “perfection”. One of the flaws of the human condition dictates that most of us will never achieve perfection because, even when others may see or hear it in the works we create, our negative bias highlights all the “faults”. Though, interestingly, it’s something that AI could almost certainly achieve. As he reflects on the motivational factors behind this unwavering dedication to making music, Actress comes to the conclusion that the main driver behind his desire not to stop is this perfectionism.
With the album dropping on November 3, he’s back on the road post-COVID, having confronted and processed “difficult things” during the global shutdown, recuperating from borderline burnout and forming a deeper bond with his son through homeschooling. With his refreshed outlook, hunger for discovery and gratitude for being able to travel again, Actress takes time to soak up the cities he visits, relishing the opportunity to experience childlike awe through his children’s eyes. Crucially, he’s also feeling embodied, creatively. “I'm just very grateful that I’m at this creative point, where I just feel in my body. I find that I'm looking forward to trying something new, or even the mundane tasks I'm finding bearable these days”. Reaching the end of our conversation, Actress speaks about mentoring and how much satisfaction that’s bringing him. Giving back and sharing the lessons he’s learned, while also learning from younger artists forms an infinity loop of ideas and creativity. As he heads out there to tour the new LP, Actress does so with a bright outlook and a grounding level of inner peace.
‘LXXXVIII’ comes out on November 3 via Ninja Tune, pre-order it here
Marcus Barnes is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter