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Actress: "My Saving Grace is I Always Try to Put Beauty in My Music"

On his new album 'AZD,' the British producer responds to rumors of his retirement with a complete overhaul of the way he makes music.

In the mid-80s to early 90s, the British company Research Machines launched a line of personal computers called the Nimbus. The RM Nimbus eventually faded into obscurity, but decades later, the computer would inspire the first track on Actress' latest full-length, AZD, out now on Ninja Tune. An homage to the British producer's first personal computer, "Nimbus" sounds like a room full of computers coming online, pinging in unison, getting ready for calculations to come. It's also our first introduction to the idea behind the album: "a robot that I put together and program… [a] very Frankenstein-style analogy," as he tells me during our interview. In other words, AZD sounds fierce and chrome-plated. It's a machine.

The fifth album from London's Darren Cunningham, AZD is an electroplated monument to the idea of "self," both real and imagined. Spurred by the media response to his alleged retirement from music after 2014's dark, dirging Ghettoville, Cunningham both satisfies and subverts our expectations for what an "Actress album" is supposed to sound like. Alternately bright and brutal, the twelve-tracker is an ongoing android dream that swoops in and out of chaos. While tracks like "Fantasynth" are upbeat and infectious, "CYN" hisses with static interference and threatens trouble. While Cunningham says he switched up everything from his studio to the way he works on music, one thing hasn't changed: "My response is always to give the realest view of what I'm feeling," he says.

When Cunningham and I met on Skype a couple weeks ago, we started by talking about how the album came together. Cunningham explained that he spends his days recording sounds by building up an archive of CDs containing synth lines, string sequences, and sound effects he's come up with. Then, slowly, he pieces those recordings together according to concepts he's thinking about. "From my perspective, the music has already been written," he says, referring to the way he uses his own pre-recorded material to make new songs. "In terms of the next album, the next album, the next album, it's already been written. It's just that they've not been pulled together to form what the next thing is going to be." 

Below, read the rest of our interview, where we talk about how Cunningham taught himself to use primitive software from the 80s, why he's "emotionally dead" while making music, and of course, his childhood Nimbus.

THUMP: Can you talk about how you make a track like "Nimbus"? Why did you choose to start off the album with it?

Darren Cunningham: You know what a nimbus is, right?

A cloud? Or is it something else?

It can be a few things. [Nimbus] was actually my first proper personal computer. The type of computer that you do your homework on rather than a computer which you play games on was a Nimbus. Then I found that "nimbus" can also be a halo, and obviously it can also be a cloud. Usually I start albums with an introduction-type track. I like to hint in some way to the listener that you're going to go under right now, and you need to understand that. This is not an album for general consumption. It's almost like, put your halo on and travel through the sonics.

It feels like we go through these undulations within each track itself, but then also over the course of the entire album. How are you negotiating moments of calm and greater activity?

That mostly comes down to balance. I don't think it's so overly-considered on my behalf. The thing I am meticulous about is that the tracks have to be able to conjoin and work together and converge. That's why I enjoy the album format—because it allows me to make music in that way.

My response is always to give the realest view of what I'm feeling.

Where do you imagine AZD to be best heard? Or do you imagine an ideal environment for it at all?

I've played my music in the desert—people tripping in this sort of martian landscape, in the expanse, looking up at the skies and [the] stars. That was about as perfect an environment as I could imagine. But my music can be experienced in any situation.

There's a versatility in your music because of the way it seems to have many valences or layers. So if you're in a room and just listening to the music, it develops maybe a more emotional quality. But if I was out in the desert or at a party, I might have a different relationship to it.

I'll be honest with you, I'm quite emotionally dead while I'm making music. Between making Splazsh, R.I.P., and Ghettoville, I traveled around the world quite extensively and started to see the other side of things. Poverty always strikes me. Certainly with Ghettoville, homeless people's environments really took a hold of me. I remember walking down Skid Row just thinking, I've never seen anything like this—and being in parts of San Francisco as well, seeing open crack abuse and then relating that back to home. It was going on [in London] as well.

My response is always to give the realest view of what I'm feeling. I want to put the sonic versions of the feeling of taking crack and that sort of dead, crazy, wild, rabid, funky, smelly, pungent, completely underground and pilloried by the outside world [sound]. I want all that to go in. I can't ignore it. My saving grace is I always try to put beauty in my music.

How much do the tracks on the album reflect the music you were listening to at the time of composing it?

The music I listen to doesn't really affect in any way how I put together the final concept of an album. I'm never directly searching for a sample. I never listen to a track and think, I need to go to the record store and dig out something that'll fit this. That never enters my mind. It's always by chance or by occurrence. A lot of my reference points [are] the music that I've already made. So my day is taken up by doing lots and lots of recordings. I've got an archive of CDs and then when I actually get to the process of writing, often it's the case that I already have something which will fit a particular junction in the writing process and I'll collage it together and see if it works.

Your music feels so spatial to me. There are certain elements that point to that destitution or that pain, and then other elements which are creating something more ethereal.

It's important to me to not wallow too much in the moment. I won't stay in that state because I don't think that's particularly healthy. With [AZD] being after Ghettoville, I was just like, it's time to clear the palette. The challenge for me was, whether intentionally or not, it had been construed that I had retired from making music. It's open to debate. I think other people really want it to be construed in that way, but it was fascinating too because I was just like, all this is doing is giving me inspiration for my next [album]. 

My saving grace is I always try to put beauty in my music.

It was an across-the-board change. I changed my studio, I changed the way that I worked, I changed the language particles that I was dealing with in terms of the equipment. For two and half years and up until now, I was under so many instruction manuals and trying to figure out all this work that I'd given myself.

What kinds of things were you learning or teaching yourself?

One of the biggest frustrations for me is that you can't see music. I can see the sounds and the colors that it creates for me, and I'm sure the listener can as well, but you can't physically see it. I've always considered myself an artist that is working with sonics as a discipline, as a form of paint. So there is a certain physicality that I was yearning for. 

I decided that I was going to create something that in effect could also be placed in a gallery. This is when I started to think up the idea of AZD. This idea of a robot that I put together and program, and then that turns into very Frankenstein-style analogy. It becomes quite romantic, this sort of lonely, isolated, introverted-stroke-extroverted character: Actress building this robot, having been consigned to the boundaries of limbo by the music press on the back of Ghettoville , which is his final album. He retreats to his lab to create his… These are the things I smirk inwardly [about] when I'm just like, I know now exactly where I'm going.

The reality is, once you've decided on the equipment you're going to use, you have to learn it, understand it. I was operating outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to go back to very primitive software that was being used during the time period that I'm mostly interested in, which tends to be early 80s, mid-80s, early 90s pop. So I'm working with equipment which is very, very primitive—storage capabilities of like 32 MB and ridiculous shit like that. But it's those limitations which [end up] really sort of testing me.

AZD is out now on Ninja Tune