Actress' Darren Cunningham on Chess, Parenthood, Minecraft, Clubbing, and the Beautiful Game

Actress' Darren Cunningham on Chess, Parenthood, Minecraft, Clubbing, and the Beautiful Game

This is a free installment of Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers get a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist along with criticism around the music I've been consuming lately.

Darren Cunningham is what the Brits would call a proper legend; as Actress, he's made some of the most mind-boggling and brain-massaging techno of the last 15 years, continually zigging and zagging around and coming forth with work that is full of surprises. I last talked to him back in 2014 for Pitchfork and we got to hop on a call last week to chat about his excellent latest record LXXXVIII from last year, as well as a host of other topics:

I know that chess inspired the latest record. I'm not too knowledgable about the game beyond basic knowledge, but it's something I'm always fascinated to hear people talk about.
Much of my creativity comes from catching myself in a moment. Just before COVID, I was in downtown L.A.—I think it was Pershing Park. I was making some notes and sitting at this constructed community table, and there was this splat mark over it, like a splat of paint. It suddenly occurred to me that the table was a chessboard. That was the nucleus of the idea, really.

A lot of my music starts as a symbol, or a grabbed moment. "This is the personal direction I'm being pointed towards." From there, my research starts, so I tried to make connections with my personal relationship with chess. I'm no great chess player by any stretch of the imagination. I would occasionally play chess with my dad. The after-school club would have chess as an activity. It was a transitive interest.

For the album's tracks, I went through multiple iterations of what the tracklist could be. It got to the point where I was programming the tracklist while writing the album, and parallel to that I'd be playing the computer at chess. At this point, it became technological, and a lot of connections to game theory came into place. I was connecting the moves to the track titles. "This particular track is making this move here. What was the last iteration of that track? I'll give it this particular move or piece number." It was much less about computer science techniques, where you have lots of different computer intelligence and strategy moves.

There are people who delve into that side of things, and it's outside of my realm. A lot of times, I use these moments to trigger something else, whether it's the artwork or a way to formulate the tracklist. A lot of the concepts I come up with, including R.I.P. with Paradise Lost, become triggers to finesse a project or find a finishing point to complete something. Whilst I am proficient in computing and programming, I'm still really just an artist. My approach is conceptual when it comes to working with music, you could say. It's not as shallow as it being plopped on the end as a tool. It has some foundation as far as triggering the art itself.

You just mentioned the idea of being a conceptual artist. Did you see the Simon Reynolds piece about conceptronica a few years back?
Simon's come up at so many points, but not at the top of my head, to be honest with you. Tell me about it.

I think it was a way of labeling and grouping together a lot of the deconstructed club music that was going around in the mid-to-late 2010s—a lot of which sounded to me as an extension of what you'd been doing in your first few records.
Conceptronica, that's quite a deep thing to think about. I think there's a lot of artists who go deeper with fully-formed concepts—it's all mapped out in advance of the execution itself. I don't think I'm that type of conceptual artist. My work eventually becomes conceptual because it starts to sprawl over the span of the creative process. It might not be until the end where I know what it's actually all about, to be honest with you.

In the case of R.I.P., initially, my first thought was that I wanted to write something about the Bible, or at least using stories from it as a starting point. Then I was like, "Well, I've never read the Bible," even though I used to go to church, so I was in between God and the devil in that way. I felt the flock in both directions. As soon as I perceived that, I thought, "Maybe I need to channel it into something a little more literary that still takes these subjects." I just happened to be drawn to Paradise Lost at that time, and it married everything together perfectly like a puzzle.

There's always a formula, and in terms of consistency that's what has carried over into this particular project. But what I'm looking for when I'm conceptualizing things is something that's going to trigger all aspects of the creative process. I design the artwork myself, and initially I involved a lot of transposition, and then I drew a very intricate knight, which was a pencil drawing I did. The person I work with simplified the work into a more pixellated, computer-generated piece. It aligned everything into the different themes that I'm thinking about—computers, artificial intelligence, moves, strategy, direction, focus, clarity. But, again, it's all mixed in with a little bit of haziness as well, because that's ultimately what my aesthetic is.

I read the Mixmag profile last year that described this record and R.I.P. as easier creative experiences than Karma and Desire or Ghettoville. Tell me about how it feels when you struggle to connect with yourself or the work. What do you run up against, and how do you overcome it?
It can involve a few things. It can involve personal stuff, to be honest with you. It can involve general growing pains—evolving as a person, evolving your moral and philosophical thinking, which all changes with the times. It can involve going from extreme optimism in the millennium of New Labour to periods of chaos in terms of war, starting with the Gulf War and the Afghanistan War. Financial and economical collapse affects you financially, good or negative. I've been on both sides of that.

There's dystopian optimism, which was around the time of AZD where I was thinking about sentient beings and chrome landscapes, spending more time in Canary Wharf around corporate buildings and structures, trying to place them in my music. In the context of Ghettoville, that was particularly difficult because it was the death of my sonic palette. Hazyville, Splazsh, R.I.P., all successful records that were pretty defined by the same sonic palette. When I got to Ghettoville, I realized I'd exhausted all of my palette. Everything was literally hanging together with cello tape, decaying and falling apart. That was the record that defined the death of an era of sonic experimentation and melody-building, as well as environmental recording.

Then I evolved into a period where I essentially dismantled my studio when it came to how it worked, which meant I had a long period of time where I had to learn new machines, reading thick manuals while simultaneously trying to make music on machines I didn't know how to operate yet. That was a very deep struggle. There's nothing worse than having your creativity curtailed because you don't know how to do something, if you even know what you want to do in the first place. You spend a lot of time fixing things and seeing how things work and not work inexplicably, and you spend a lot of time confused. It feels like you're banging your head against a brick wall.

Then, slowly but surely, it starts to fall into place eventually. Your creative and technological reflexes start to evolve into something else, you feel that occur. This album is really that point for me. "Oh, I get it now, I know how to do this." I'm out of the darkness of manuals and things not working—things that aren't even related to the writing process. And things come out of that! It's a deeply experimental time. That's why I'm still able to put something together. But there's a lot of fraught and charged stuff that goes into that.

How is fatherhood going?
I have two children, a son and a daughter. My son is eight, my daughter is almost two. I love it. It's tough, but I always prioritize them over my work—unless I'm doing an email or something like that. Generally, they have my full attention. A lot of times, I've had to change the way that I work, because typically before they arrived, and early on in my creative process, I'd work all the time. And I'm always working because there's things floating around in my mind, but I'd always be in the studio with sound going.

At a certain period of time, I was always smoking and getting high. I don't do any of that now. My whole creative process is much more holistic and conscious than it used to be. I'm much more present and less flying somewhere, out there, in the ether. Raising children in parallel to your creativity is more informative. I'll have little things for them to play on, whether it's a Baby Einstein toy piano, or what my son is playing on YouTube. Something will come on and I'll be like, "What's that song?" He won't know, he just likes it, but I'll be like, "This is interesting." So I get snapshots into what they're being drawn into. It feels like a privileged place to be. I love it.

You recently learned how to play Minecraft with your son too. Tell me about your relationship with gaming in general, and through the lens of your children's experience.
I had a very intense relationship with computer games. A lot of my music is based on one particular computer game, an Atari game called Moon Patrol, which I used to play all the time and I was very good at. I was very good at Pac-Man too.

The next computer I got was the Amstrad 464, which was cassette-loading. It was my first time being introduced to modems, sounds of the tapes, reading programs. The 464 came with a book of programming, and it was the first time I was following the script. I'd write scripts for hours because you had to get the strings absolutely perfect, and they were pages and pages, so I'd spend all day scripting on the computer. Eventually, you'd press "Enter," and the final program would be the borders flashing in a different color, and you'd be like, "Mum, come see this!" And she'd be like, "What the hell? You've broken the computer!" [Laughs]

That was when I first started programming and figuring out that there was a world beyond computer gaming—creation, the architecture of the computer itself. I fell into a liminal space of, "What's behind the computer games?" I started to discover strategy games like Football Manager, which I spent hours and hours on, creating teams that would get promoted to different divisions while buying and selling. Saving for the economy, managing the team—all these strategy aspects is what I was super interested in. I started moving away from gaming when Nintendo started to come through with Sonic the Hedgehog and all that stuff. [Editor's Note: Sonic is a Sega property.] I was losing interest, I just wasn't that type of gamer.

In the case of my son, I love Minecraft because it returns to that primitive computer gaming aspect—mining, pixels, blocks, worldbuilding, strategy, logic. Computer checkpoints of early learning. It was really important, I felt, to introduce him to that type of gaming. He's a total gamer now, 100%. He went really deep into Minecraft. As soon as he was able to mine his first block and craft things, he was away, and YouTube was a good reference tool for him too because there are loads of YouTubers who can take you a little bit further than your dad can because he doesn't know much at this particular point. Just seeing him evolve at that level was awesome, to be honest with you.

What's it been like going to the club in the last few years for you?
It's much better these days. You could say that, prior to COVID, things were falling apart a bit. Peoples' mental health threshold was falling apart, and it's largely because of the spaces you're inhabiting and the lifestyle. Your general habits become toxic. It needed a cleanse of some sort, and now you have an experience that some might say is a little more sanitized and soulless, but I think we're safer because of that, actually.

Look, I've been up to all sorts of mischief in the clubs. [Laughs] I've been clubbing since before '99. I've seen it all—rave dungeons, all that stuff. There's one thing I've always promised myself, which is that I was never going to become a casualty. It's a serious thing for me. It's not necessarily my community, but it's my world, and you have to navigate yourself through that world. It's not for the faint-hearted. I've grown up within that industry, so I care about it a lot. I want to see it evolve into something that's safe for everybody and equal.

I'm really enjoying the clubbing experience these days. I'm much less of a punter. On my downtime, I tend to stay at time and chill. It's very rare that you'll catch me at a club night in my spare time, unless I have a friend I really want to go check out. Most of the time, my time in the club is spent through my work. It's a better place to be, the clubs these days, if I'm being honest with you. I think promoters are much more conscious, generally. People are much more professional, generally. All the cowboys you find out there have been pretty much washed away. It's a healthier place to be now.

I recently talked to George Riley for the newsletter, who you've worked with a bit over the last few years. You've collaborated with a few people across the last few Actress records as well. I think listeners associate the act of solitude and being alone with your work, so it's interesting to hear other voices—Sampha, Jonnine—in your work. Tell me about what collaboration brings into your music.
It's not an easy fit, if I'm being honest with you. But I know, instinctively, what's right. With Jonnine, it naturally feels right, because I've always loved HTRK's music and her solo material. After that point of being a mutual fan, it's just a question of, "Can I make it fit with what it is I'm doing?" With Jonnine, the idea was to have her on the track "Game Over (e1)" because I had the beat but I knew it required a different level to elevate it—a vocal element. It was the same with "Push Power (A1)," originally I wanted to have Adam Markiewicz on that track with Jonnine on "Game Over (e1)," but it didn't quite fit. So when I swapped them over, I realized these were moves. It's source material, I had the performance, I just needed to figure out which pieces would hold it all correctly. That's a clear example of game theory.

In the case of George, she's quite persistent, and you need to be persistent with me, because I'm not that easy to get hold of. I don't always like working. George would be on my case, "I'm coming around tomorrow!" And I'd be like, "Oh no, she's gonna make me work." Then she'd come around, and I'd try to make a few excuses—"My computer's laid up, it's being funny, this project's on this drive somewhere." "NO, Darren!" So I get the computer out and I'm like, "Ahhh yeah, this thing here," and she'd be like, "I have a USB with this bit," and then you're pushing around audio. Then she'd play me a demo of something she did in Detroit, a sketch of an idea, and I'd say, "I see where this is going, maybe we change the key, I have this snare drum, we restructure the verse and chorus here." Simple ideas.

In the end, my trepidation—"Oh my God, this is a session where it's going to involve a bunch of stems"—turns into a few hours of work that's not as stressful as I think. I'm quite like that. I don't mind being out of my comfort zone, but as soon as I see something that's evolving into what my own project might look like, I start to get the fear a little bit, because it's somebody else's baby, really. You have to be responsible for that, and I get a little tetchy.

But I love working with George. She brings out the best in me, and that's what you want as a collaborator. I've been in situations where collaboration has been a complete nightmare, and it's put me off a bit, but that's just the experience. Not all collaborations are supposed to work.

Tell me about your financial realities of supporting yourself and your family through music. What's easy? What's not?
As I said, I've been on both sides of the scale. I've made loads of money, I've lost lots of money, and I've been in the middle as well. But I'm still doing what I'm doing, and ultimately that was my starting principle. The rest is a bonus. You always hope that there's a financial reward you can sustain. I like to think of it as a big difference between what's in your bank account and what you're worth. I'm worth more than what's in my bank account. I bookend it there, to be honest with you.

You can look at music as assets, your intellectual property as real estate, I guess. But there's different ways of looking at what money actually is. There's lots of people out there earning bagloads, shitloads of money—but the music's terrible. I don't want to be in that bracket. I don't think I was doing anything different than I was a few years ago—maybe I'm a little more conscious because I have more responsibilities. But it's more or less the same.

Tell me about your history with football, both playing it and as a viewer—your personal experience with it, and in the greater context of British culture, too.
Football, in many ways, defines the culture of British music. It always has, and the two go hand in hand through hooliganism and casual fashion, as well as rhythm in terms of how you receive the move—receiving and giving the ball—and strategy in terms of how you play against the other team. They call it "The Beautiful Game," and it is a beautiful game, because it isn't just about kicking around a sphere around a pitch. There's a lot that goes into it. It can be romantic, strategic, physical, beautiful. It can be so many different things.

I just loved watching certain footballers—Marco van Basten, who was a Dutch hero of mine, an exquisite finisher. Rudd Gullit was a Black role model, silky skills, beautiful in possession, an outstanding vision, saw the pitch and the game in motion, three or four steps ahead of time. I love Italian football in the early '90s, during and just after World Cup Italia. That particular era of Italian football was amazing. A lot of money went into it, so a lot of the top footballers were there. AC Milan were the top team, I always loved AC Milan. Dejan Savićević, Zvonmir Boban, George Weah—the list goes on and on, really.

I was always more into Italian football than Spanish football, but even in Spanish football, you had Hristo Stoichkov, a Bulgarian madman, just an incredible football finisher. He had an amazing partnership with Romário, this diminutive pocket rocket who was just clinical in front of goal. He did it with a Brazilian finesse.

In terms of British football, I've always been a Liverpool supporter. I just love Liverpool—the team, the history, everything to do with it. They've got such an interesting and fascinating football history, from their time in Everton and how they evolved out of that. The Bill Shankley period, the Bob Paisley period. The Kenny Dalglish era, the Jürgen Klopp era, which has been amazing and is just about to end, which is heartbreaking, but it is what it is.

I just always love the game. Diego Maradona, Pelé, Lothar Matthäus. I'm just a lover of the game, really. My experience and my love of it isn't the same as what it used to be, but nevertheless I'm still interested. I still love and support Liverpool. But it's a different game now. The football legends I mentioned before, we've evolved into a different type of modern football, which hasn't always been to my taste. But football, like everything, evolves. A new generation comes through, and they take it to a different place.

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Jamie Larson