VENUE: Cakeshop, Itaewon
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩20 000
I missed my first chance to see an Actress set in 2013. I was still living in my home country of South Africa then, and thanks to a series of events jointly curated by Live Magazine and the British Council aimed at bringing British electronic musicians to South Africa, Actress was scheduled to play two sets, one in Cape Town, one in Johannesburg. Myself and my small group of techno-head friends were beyond excited. International underground acts rarely make it so far down south – there’s not really a thriving enough scene there to make the journey worthwhile – so to have someone like the legendary Darren J Cunningham in the country was something special. Unfortunately, at the last minute I was forced to stay home; I simply couldn’t afford it, both in time (to get from our sleepy Eastern Cape town to Johannesburg for the gig required a solid 10 hours of driving) and money (I was absolutely skint). The friends of mine who went came home raving about the experience, and I was understandably seething with jealousy, but one thing that they said stood out to me. When I asked about the crowd – how many people were there? Was there a good vibe? – they hesitated a little, then shook their heads and said “a lot of them didn’t get it, hey”.
Honestly, I wasn’t at all surprised. As a producer, a DJ and – judging by his interviews – as a personality, Actress is straight-up weird, albeit in the best possible way. His production completely defies categorisation: emerging out of that busy, fertile period of London dance music in the immediate wake of dubstep in the late 00’s and early ‘10s, Actress’s tracks clearly draw from a bewildering array of influences – Detroit techno, Chicago house, grime, jungle, r&b, hip-hop, even classical music – yet manage to sound nothing like any of them. Instead, he’s one of comparatively few producers whose sonic palette sounds entirely unique – nothing and no one sounds quite like Actress. The closest comparison that comes to mind – not in terms of musical similarity, but rather in their relationship to their particular scenes – is that of Flying Lotus. In a similar way to how FlyLo takes on the influences and structures and sounds of hip hop and jazz and by some technical wizardry twists them into musical forms that are entirely his own, Actress has crafted something previously unimaginable out of random bits and pieces of the UK hardcore continuum. And though it hasn’t garnered quite the same level of praise and influence that Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has, Actress’ own Werkdiscs has earned its own place amid the legion of electronic labels out there, providing a home for such diverse and excellent artists as Moiré, Lukid, and Helena Hauff. What makes Actress even more remarkable, as both a producer and a DJ, is how he’s somehow managed to make such abstract, difficult sounds that often bear only the barest tangential relationship to the dancefloor have such wide appeal – a trait especially apparent on his latest album, AZD, which is probably his most accessible and floor-friendly work since debut album Hazyville.
the cover image for Actress’ latest LP, AZD
With all that in mind, when I saw that Actress was due to play a set in Seoul I was both extremely hyped – and grateful that I’d been given a second chance to hear him play – and extremely curious: would he draw a particularly large crowd here? What kind of stuff would he be laying down, and how would the floor respond?
He was hosted, of course, by Cakeshop. Located on the main strip of Seoul’s “foreign quarter”, Itaewon, within spitting distance of the Yongsan Military Base, Cakeshop – which has been in business for five years now – is to my mind a serious contender for the title of “best club in Seoul”. It’s literally underground, occupying the basement level of the building, and the interior is constantly bathed in soft red light. The lighting never fails to make me think of Twin Peaks, as if the club was something out of the set of a K-drama as directed by David Lynch. Musically, Cakeshop walks a fine line between accessible, crowd-friendly grooves and bangers, usually in a hip hop, trap and bass music vein, and more adventurous sonic fare (over the past year they’ve featured artists like Elysia Crampton, Kode9, Gaika and Machinedrum). It’s this balancing act – the way that Cakeshop is able to provide a space both for dedicated beat-heads and casual clubbers just out for a good night- that seems to be the recipe for the venue’s success. If anything, sometimes the place can be a little too successful; on busy nights it’s heaving with bodies to the point where hacking out a space in the crowd to dance can be an exhausting task.
Cakeshop itself is the main attraction, but next door is home to Cakeshop’s affiliate club/secondary floor, Contra; paying door fee at one club secures you entrance to the other. Where Cakeshop specialises in bombastic bass, boisterous crowds and bone-shaking rhythms, Contra, by contrast, is a little more refined; the colour palette is blue to Cakeshop’s red and the sounds on display lean more towards house, disco and techno than bass, dubstep and hip-hop. The fact that you can easily wander between the floors if one gets a bit too monotonous or crowded is a big plus in Cakeshop/Contra’s favour.
The Actress gig took place on Saturday, January 27th, with Contra hosting the first anniversary of its innovative techno night, Exlinear (the brainchild of German transplant Tobias Kalleder, aka KLLDR) at the same time. When I arrived, around half midnight, Cakeshop was still three-quarters empty, with a handful of people clinging to the walls and talking over rather than bobbing to the bass and hip-hop being spun by the opening acts. Upstairs, at Contra, the Exlinear night was a little more interesting. Despite the relatively early hour the music was full of energy, the DJs churning out a barrage of booming, chunky techno and tech-house cuts. I told myself I was only there to mark time until Actress stepped up to the decks downstairs, but in all honesty I found myself zoning out so hard to the Exlinear crew’s muscular brand of techno that I completely lost track of time, and it was around 2:30 am – half an hour after Actress was due to begin – that I glanced at my phone to check the time. Cursing, I made my way back down into the ‘Shop, which Actress had already thoroughly taken over.
If there’s one word I would use to describe the bulk of Actress’ set, it would be “minimal”. Not in the shiny, sterile sense, the clicking and popping of the mid 00s Berlin “mnml” movement. Rather, the sounds issuing from the speakers had a deep and cavernous quality, edged with oodles of negative space and characterised by a crisp sonic severity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much groove and feeling wrung out of such sparse elements: a shuriken-sharp hi-hat here, a leaden slab of bass there, squeals and sizzles of synth, the occasional grainy ambient wave crashing down around it all. It was a masterclass in simplicity, making everything else I’d heard that night sound overwrought in comparison. Something that I was always keenly aware of was his use of bass. Now, bass is the cornerstone of pretty much all electronic dance music (and, for that matter, most popular music). It’s the bit that actually gets people moving. But in Actress’s set, the bass really felt like the star of the show, at various times coarse and well-defined, rough around the edges and skull-squeezingly deep, thick and sinuous and undeniably present at all times.
my phone camera is terrible. That dark pixellated shape is Actress.
Cunningham’s transitions were also remarkable. In all truthfulness his mixing was a million light years away from seamless. New tracks were abruptly, jarringly introduced into the mix, meshing into each other in a chaotic, car-crash fashion that nevertheless never once felt clumsy or out of control. Rather, after each initially shocking mix the new tracks settled into the set almost subliminally, so that in one moment I found myself stopping and marvelling at how weird and unexpected a particular shift was, yet only a few seconds later I found myself once again caught up in the groove and could barely recall what the set had sounded like the minute before. The flow of the set was never actually disrupted, the energy never lagged, despite how many curveballs Actress threw at the crowd- and there were plenty of curveballs. At one point, he ratcheted the tempo up to a punishing, nearly unbearable pace, beats pummelling the crowd in a way that would almost have been gabber-like had the rhythms not remained so slinky and off-kilter, only to drop right back down again a few tracks later into sludgy, shuffling slo-house. As for what, exactly, he was playing, I would be hard-pressed to give an answer; it’s difficult to guess at what genre(s) I was listening to, let alone which artists. The best I can come up with is: everything he played sounded like it had been ripped off of Soundcloud, but in the best possible way.
The crowd, for the most part, seemed to love it. It’s been said that, at an earlier point in his DJ career, Actress had a habit of clearing (or should that be cleansing?) dancefloors, but I found that the faces and bodies around me remained pretty consistent throughout the night: people were there for him from beginning to end. The club was, it must be said, less crowded than I had expected it to be. It was still full, don’t get me wrong, but nowhere near the overwhelming crush of humans I’m used to experiencing on busy Cakeshop nights. This may indicate that Actress is perhaps not as well-known or appreciated in the Korean capital as he ought to be; however, I think it’s more likely that the weather kept more than a few people home (Seoul in January is bitterly cold, and that weekend the city was in the grip of a nasty cold snap). The crowd was also, I was surprised to see, predominantly Korean, with very few waygookin in attendance. This was, I would say, pretty unusual, as typically acts like this draw quite a sizeable number of the city’s expatriate techno cognoscenti out of the woodwork. Another unusual (especially for Cakeshop) feature of the makeup of the audience was the fact that it was predominantly male. At some points, especially towards the DJ booth, it felt like I was seeing three or four men for every woman. This speaks, perhaps, to a sad truth about the demographic appeal of this kind of music – that fans of the sort of abstract techno that Actress has made his career off of are very much a “boy’s club”.
At some point after 4 am, following a few brief ambient interludes and a final run of rough-shod instrumental grime, Actress’s set drew to a close and he withdrew, almost unnoticed, into the shadows. I decided to head back upstairs and see how the Exlinear anniversary party was progressing, which turned out to be a good decision. KLLDR had taken to the decks, bewitching dancers with a weirder, more psychedelic techno sound than had been playing before. At this point it was clear that everyone was tired – more and more people began to peel away from the dancefloor and venture outside – but it was a happy kind of tired; all around me people were smiling, laughing and dancing in the special way that people do after they’ve had a particularly good night out. By the time everyone was hustled out and both venues shut their doors the subway had already started running again and the winter sun was just beginning to lighten the skyline.
As I strolled out into the dawn, I remembered another thing that my friends had told me about that time they all went up to Johannesburg to see Actress play; how when they’d been leaving the gig they were held up at gunpoint and nearly robbed of all their possessions, only to be rescued by a passing taxi driver with a can of mace (Johannesburg is a dangerous city). Making my way through the orderly streets of Seoul – even Itaewon at its rowdiest feels pretty controlled after a lifetime in South Africa – I turned the story over in my mind, and marvelled at how far away I was from home, how deeply different the context around me was from the one I’d come from – and how despite their differences, both environments could be momentarily connected by something as arbitrary and tenuous as throwing a party with Actress. And that feeling – strangeness and familiarity rolled up into one weirdly comforting sensation – seems like as good a metaphor as any other for the night.