Actress - Biography
Darren Cunningham is a pivotal figure in the global dance music community. Not only does he manage Werk Discs, one of the most progressive minded labels in underground beat music, he is also slowly building one of the most intriguing and singular discographies in the world of post-techno, wonky house, whatever you want to call it. Cunningham has produced under the moniker of Actress since 2004. Since the first release he has created a unique blend of slow-motion house, dirty electro, minimal grooves and smudged, foggy ambience. His music builds on the traditions of Detroit, Berlin and the UK’s dance scene while creating a highly personal style that continues to evolve.
Cunningham has been an active member of London’s dance scene since the early ‘00s. He DJ’ed alongside Kode 9 at early Hyperdub club nights before starting the Werk Discs label in 2004. That year also brought the first Actress release. The No Tricks EP is a heavy, fragmented mix of bustling electro and IDM grooves, damaged sample manipulation, swung beats and thick sub bass. Tracks like “Bassline FM” and the stunning “Cross Dresser” set the tone for the Werk label and pointed toward the music Actress would make in the years to come.
Werk Discs would go on to release rough, bass-centric music of all stripes by the likes of Starkey, Radioclit, Lukid, Lone and Zomby. Cunningham’s obvious love of hip-hop, house, electro, dubstep and UK garage is evidenced by the artists he releases on Werk. With records like Zomby’s Where Were You In ’92? and Lone’s Ecstacy and Friends, Werk Discs continues to set the bar high for progressive beats in 2010.
Back to the Actress timeline and four years of relative quiet go by before the release of his first full-length. 2008’s Hazyville easily ranks as one of the best electronic albums of that year. Certainly well worth the wait, Cunningham has put together a collection of tracks that mark him as one of today’s most inventive producers. These tracks boast a maturity not found on the debut EP while maintaining the rough and ready spirit of those early tracks. The songs on Hazyville focus on more restrained, minimal house grooves with a swirling, Basic Channel style gritty smudged ambience. The production is hypnotically murky and warm, with muted drum sounds, round and padded synths and deep, deep grooves that at times recall Theo Parrish’s best music. The album works so well as a whole due to its constant mood and Cunningham’s focused aesthetic.
2009 brought a single on the excellent Prime Numbers label. Ghosts Have A Heaven featured two of the funkiest tracks from Hazyville plus the new title track. “Ghosts Have A Heaven” is one of Cunningham’s most straightforward house beats to date. Locking in to a simple but deep pattern, the track cycles through the groove endlessly while ghostly synth pads drift overhead. It recalls the work of Maurizio in its mesmerizing simplicity.
That same year Actress remixed deep house producer Tom Trago’s “Lost In The Streets Of NYC” to stunning effect. Released on the Rush Hour Recordings label, Actress’ mix vaults the original further into inner space and gathered much acclaim and attention from home listeners and DJs alike.
2010 seems poised to be the year Actress gains wider appreciation. With two new singles already released and his sophomore album on the horizon, Cunningham is certainly hitting his stride. The Nonplus label released a three track EP, Machine And Voice, the showcases a sharper, groovier side of the Actress sound. These tracks merge boogie and electro uptempo grooves with sharp edits and big bass aimed squarely at the dancefloor. Paint, Straw and Bubbles is the first single from his upcoming full-length on the great Honest Jon’s label. The title track is a heavy slice of percolating dub techno that seems to barely keep from floating away entirely. The beat is more implied than actually heard as Cunningham’s dense ambient textures take over. The flip side offers a long version of “Maze,” a track that merges house with darkwave synths and throbbing bass. Zomby weighs in with a remix of the title track that anchors it back to the dancefloor with a wobbling bassline and electro drums. If these new EPs are an indication of what Splazsh will be like then we’re in for a serious mindmelter of a second full-length. Actress is no doubt one of the most promising producers to watch.