Actress in NYC

Evening after the night before – the (almost) unedited transcript of a hazy chat about Ghettoville

Hoods up. Actress DJing Bushwick warehouse party, Nov 2013

Towards the end of 2013, Darren played a live show as part of the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival and DJ’d the after-party in a Bushwick warehouse. I took the opportunity to interview him for BEAT Magazine, which we ended up getting round to the following evening after a few drinks and not much sleep. The below transcript runs pretty much as it went down, bar a few cuts here and there. This was one of the first Q&As in what turned out to be a pretty epic round of interviews he did for Ghettoville, and it was interesting to see how his possibly off-the-cuff comments about the album being inspired by homeless people developed in what followed…

Last night: a corrosive, captivating live performance in Williamsburg, followed by a typically uncompromising DJ set in a cavernous Bushwick warehouse party that ends at 6am, ankle-deep in discarded vinyl. Tonight: semi-horizontal on a sofa in front of the raging fireplace in a Manhattan members’ club. Actress, the Wolverhampton-raised, London-based experimental electronic music producer, is reflecting on Ghettoville, his fourth full-length. A self-proclaimed sequel of sorts to his increasingly cult-status 2008 debut Hazyville, and follow-up to 2011’s rapturously received RIPGhettoville appears via his label Werkdiscs’ new partnership with leftfield electronica stalwarts Ninja Tune, and anticipation is running high.

Never one to take the easy route, a cryptic statement has further stoked the fires, with its thinly-veiled laying down of the gauntlet to other electronic artists and a not-so-subtle suggestion this could prove to be the final piece of music to bear the Actress moniker: “Ghettoville is the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” it runs in part. “Zero satisfaction, no teeth, pseudo artists running rampant, but the path continues. R.I.P Music 2014.” Smirking, this modern musical enigma lifts up a hefty glass of cognac and looks through it at the flames.

Soon after you started DJing, I ventured into a dark corner of the rave and found a naked couple having sex, pressed up against the filthy walls. Do you often have this effect on your crowd?

Clearly! I played at Berghain (in Berlin) and some very debauched stuff goes on down there.

Like what?

All sorts, man. You can go in with your own dustbin liner and, uh, basically… they or whoever shits in your dustbin liner and you do your… bathing in shit…

Everyone does this??

Haha! No, not everyone. But you can do. There’s a select sort of committee that are allowed to.

You’ve seen this?

I’ve played there and I’ve walked through most of the rooms in that building. Just weirdness everywhere. I’ve not been exposed to it fully because I’m being chaperoned through with my record box, up through the lift shaft…

Shaft being the operative word.

Mate, people up to stuff in darkened corners and doing god knows what. But most of the clubs I play in are pretty freaky. I’m on the freaky circuit.

In what way?

Sexy. Also… witchy. Gothy? People are fully into that occult shit at the moment.

So, where does the music come from? It’s very difficult to pull your music apart… It doesn’t feel made by a human somehow.

I can only explain in broken language. I’ve always shunned education in some way, musical education especially. One of my first classes, they were talking to us about the compressor. And saying if you overdo it, then it will ‘pump’ – have this horrible sound, where the full frequency range isn’t coming out… But I remember really liking this ‘pumping’ sound. So it really confused me why I would be taught that I should not do this, when my ears were saying that I really like this. If you’re a conventional sound engineer, a lot of the things I do, well, they’d throw the book at me, really. And that’s part of my whole sound. I don’t like the idea there is this discipline that you can’t do things. Why can’t I do that? It happens! It occurs!

If you’re a conventional sound engineer, a lot of the things I do, well, they’d throw the book at me, really…

It’s as real as anything else?

Exactly. I’m into that sort of phenomena. In experimental music, if you work with it for a long time, things just occur. And beguiling as it is to someone listening to my music, it was just as beguiling to me at the time when it was occurring.

So, some songs literally emerge through the process of sonic experimentation?

Yeah, I mean those days of mindless experimentation are gone now. But I wouldn’t say I’m at a point where it’s all completely natural. A lot of it is still trial and error. And a lot of it comes down to editing and being honest with yourself, and just saying ‘no’.

homepage_large.a05855adRIP was very well received. How do you deal with the weight of expectation that follows something like that?

[pause] Announce my retirement.

That’s one way. What led you to that conclusion?

The artist name is Actress. And from the very first day, I’ve been asked what it means. And I’ve kind of half-answered it, and half left it up to other people to work it out. Because it’s not hard. A word is a word and it has a meaning. Me choosing that name is peculiar in a way, but to me it makes perfect sense. I’ve always spent a lot of time making things and breaking it. And then remaking it and breaking it. I thought people might get that I was hinting at retirement, but I didn’t think it would be so heartfelt. To me, it’s all a bit of a game and it’s always going to be like that. It plays into the myth a little bit and it allows me to have a little bit of fun with it.

In an era when hype is so insane, it must be tempting to have some fun with that, like dropping a bit of blood into the water… So, is this really the retirement of the Actress persona? Or are you fucking with people?

Do you know what it is? It’s maybe hard for people to understand. It will take the best part of a year to write an album, and you will go through different phases of turmoil and nervous breakdowns – the whole range of emotions. Plus still having to go out and play, perform to a certain level. To satisfy yourself as much as the audience, even when you’re not up for it. And at some point in the writing of Ghettoville, which was really close in writing to RIP

At one point, you wanted them to come out in the same year?

They wanted me to get it out earlier but I wanted to put a bit of space in between the two. Aside from writing music, I’m always takng little ideas. Photos. Connecting everything to the creative process. And it’s the artistic process that interests me more than anything else. The trial, I guess. I don’t think about things with a musical mind. I think of stuff as if I’m like painting, I want things to be physical. Not necessarily palatable, because that’s not how I hear things. I could sit down and write a conventional hip hop beat. Or a conventional techno, house, whatever, I just find it boring. There’s so many sounds out there, we’re bombarded by sounds all the time. And I want to explore the full range of sounds and compose them in a very physical way. And a way that is not inhuman. And is not too emotional.  RIP was a little bit emotional. I would say this record is soulless, in a way.

RIP was a very narrative album, painted pictures and situations. This feels apocalyptic. It feels like the end, there is this creeping feeling of corruption and doom…

Someone said ‘diseased’! I feel that also. I guess doing electronic music can be a quite dangerous thing. You’re working with a lot of intense frequencies and sounds, and you’re looking to build something out of that. [In the studio,] I’m thinking about everything. I’m thinking about world issues. I’m thinking… A big part of this album is about homeless people, in a way? People who are drug addicts, a bit broken down… After-hours sketchiness. I feel all of that from living in Brixton for ten years, I still feel a lot of that which I experienced had quite a profound effect on me.

Are you saying that the downsides of urban life today really has a direct input into your music, that you consciously think about when you’re making it?

Yeah, there’s that but also, what you see is not necessarily what is occurring. Sometimes, I half feel a lot of homeless people are actually extremely important to society, and that their role is as important as an artist or like a banker or whatever.

How so?

Walking through New York the other day, there was this guy sat in a mobility cart and every single person who walked past, he was like ‘Hello? How you doing?’ And to have someone say that in a sincere way when you’re just going about your business, there’s something quite special about that. Someone you would perceive as down and out, not asking for money, but just asking people ‘How are you doing?’ And when I hear that, it just does something to me. I saw one homeless person sprawled out, in a pose like this, sleeping on a concrete floor. And I thought how can you be so at one with the floor and the cold, and just be so… shot away, not even sleeping? Almost dead! To me, it shows an even more intense understanding of what life is about when you’re at that point. I often wonder how people have got there, and what they’ve experienced, or what they’ve ignored to let go, to live their life in the way that not society dictates, but in the way that they choose to.


Ghettoville album art

This is not typical inspiration matter, the prone form of an unconscious person on the concrete floor, and the social pressures that lead to it…

Pain. Everyone has to deal with some kind of pain. And we conceal it from each other. And how we deal with it is completely up to us, and we find ways to psychologically deal with it. And keep it locked down. But I think people at that level who have experienced much more extreme pain have to stick together… And in a way I think the music in Ghettoville is trying to represent pain. A concealed pain. Which we all know we go through, but we get on with it. Some of it is my pain, but it’s also me observing other people and feeling what… That guy who was sprawled out, you’re probably having the best sleep out of anybody.

Well, how is he going to feel when he wakes up?

When he wakes up, he will go and get White Lightning and kill that pain… A lot of it is about killing the pain. Getting the booze or crystal or heroin and just killing it.

But there are also the moments of joy on the album…

I always try to offset uncomfortable sounds with something that is soothing. Again, that’s what life represents to me. Visceral bombardment. We soothe ourselves, whether that is with music, or a comfy chair… or a fire. Or a cognac, or a picture to look at. We find ways to soothe the breaking down. We’re constantly being broken down. And I think it’s the human way to be ingenious to find ways to ward it away. I think I report a lot on that side of things, certainly with this album.

I asked my son what he thought of your album, he is four years old and a noted music critic – unprompted, he once said of Bob Dylan: “I hate this man. He speaks disgusting.” But of your album, he nodded that he liked it, thought for a while and then said that it made him think of “aliens, monsters and robots.”

OK, I’m going to look at Bob Dylan first.

This isn’t an entirely serious question. But feel free to take it any direction you choose…

I’m not into Bob Dylan, really. But I do understand why he is massive, and it’s because of his whiny voice. Because that is what sound does. The guttural ‘iiiii’ sound has an effect on our bodies. The way that someone talks can really excite you… it’s like a voodoo, really. I think that’s why he is as big as he is. When he was emerging as an artist, the world was borderline apocalyptic. I can imagine hearing someone fearless like him, completely stone cold in his lyrical prose, musicianship, attitude… like John Lennon in a way, these people who despite what’s going on, seems to transcend and offer leadership and a leading hand out of situations where a lot of people would bolt. You get certain people at certain points in generations who are there to lead people out of the darkness and I think he’s one of those.

But do you think more music should be about ‘aliens, monsters and robots’?

Yeah! Thing is, I can make pictures out of anything. I can see dirt on a wall and see pictures within it, I never see the surface of anything. I see through things and see other things beyond what you are seeing… that all exist! If you think about all the superheroes that were created, how do you think they were created? They really come from a figment of someone’s imagination which has manifested itself… You know, I like the mutant side of things. Monsters is a kid’s representation… Mutants is more what I’m about, I guess.

He sensed something, though. Aliens, I guess electronic? Robots? He can hear machines. Monsters… I thought that was interesting because he is feeling the scariness.

But the whole point is to extinguish fear. If he can listen to it and enjoy it, and describe it to you, for a child of four to be able to conjure that up and be OK with it, is sort of eliminating fear, That’s what it’s all about. There’s scary shit out there, and there’s some really fucked up people out there. And I’ve experienced all that. But it’s nothing to be afraid of. And part of the album is really me saying to myself ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’. A lot of what I do is about embracing fear and taking it on, saying yeah it’s fucked up, the world is fucked up – all no difference to me.

I was reading a Mark Fisher review of the DJ Rashad album earlier. There’s this sense of frustration with the future. What are we doing in 2013/2014? You’re challenging people, challenging yourself. Fisher was talking about Rashad being a musical response to being trapped in the present, and comparing footwork to a GIF. Do you share a sense of frustration with the future? Do you feel trapped in the present?

I think he’s a really cool producer and has really good ideas. A lot of footwork, I do like it… But in terms of the statement on the website, it’s a theatrical outburst, a luvvy performance. It’s like a page out of the book of a certain moment in the dressing room when shit was fucked. You’re all shit!

Persona or not, that must come from something you feel and this is a prism you choose to express them through in some way. So, I conclude you must feel some frustration with music in 2013?

I think there’s always good artists. What I am saying is that the new mainstream is what is alien. And that is the future. And that’s stark. I’m really precious about artistic credibility and artistic endeavours. I like genuine music. Hype is all part of the game – I accept that, but I also have a voice. And no one is saying quite what I have said, so I might as well say it. At least then it encourages a different conversation. I think magazines and online journalism has become completely mindnumbing. I’m sick of seeing my face. I’m sick of people uploading the same pictures of me and reporting on some absolute bullshit I just posted on my Twitter. People who follow me, that’s who I am giving my tunes away to or talking to. Because there’s no one kicking me up my arse. All my press has been pretty much positive up until this point and I think that’s a dangerous position to be in, so I felt it was important to say something which is a little bit cruel or antagonistic. Not necessarily to anybody directly but it gets other artists thinking about what they are doing, or what it is that I am trying to say.

A bit like Kendrick’s verse…?

If I make a decent album, wicked, then that’s great. But I also want whoever to make just as good an album, because it means I need to constantly up my game…

A bit of needle. Show me what you got…

It also sets myself up for a possible… It could be the worse thing I could possibly do! The intention is as a challenge. Fine. I don’t talk much anyway, but I have enough confidence in my own ability to feel like I have a little bit of authority to stir things up a bit. My whole feelings about the album changes. I’ve had moments where I thought it was my best album… And I’ve had moments where I thought it’s a load of shit. But you know, I think it’s good! What’s important to me is I think it says something. I think it has a language. I couldn’t associate one track with any other artist. Maybe one or two, there’s a certain vibe which may have been inspired by Aphex or Autechre – but it’s very hard to extinguish those sort of artists from your own mind because they’re such doyens of electronic music. But I think for the most part, my main challenge is to eliminate and get rid of all the music I’ve listened to and how it affected me, and try to get to the point where it’s my own language. That to me is what I’m striving for: creating my own language in my music. And I don’t think I’m there yet. But I’m getting there. And I certainly haven’t retired! I’m always doing things under different pseudonyms. A lot of records out there at the moment are records that I’ve recorded, and people don’t even know.

My main challenge is to eliminate and get rid of all the music I’ve listened to and how it affected me, and try to get to the point where it’s my own language

Last question. On Twitter, why do you follow Farrow & Ball?

Why not? Haha. Because… Listen, my whole ambition in life is to live in a beautiful house. So, when it comes to like paints and shit… I want the best. And Farrow & Ball is pretty much the best.

A version originally published in BEAT Magazine, Winter 2013

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