James Kirby (The Caretaker): Interview
“There is a reverence with much of The Caretaker work, where the feeling created is one of loss for something you are not sure about.”
James Kirby may not be familiar to some by his own name, but for the last two decades, he’s been recording vast amounts of music under monikers like V/vm, The Stranger, and The Caretaker, to name but a few. Back in the 90s, V/vm became notorious for its out of control live shows and destruction of pop music, in particular a rendition of Chris DeBurgh’s soft rock classic “Lady in Red.” In the last 10 years Kirby has dodged the spotlight while continuing to release a treasure trove of material as The Caretaker (the project’s name was taken from the haunted ballroom scene in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, The Shining). Much like V/vm’s destruction of commercial pop, The Caretaker is destructive in a vastly different, less unhinged way. Here, Kirby’s modus operandi has been to use early 20th century ballroom music as a sound source, refracted through a secretive process, to create incredibly penetrating drone and ambient music.
Many of The Caretaker’s releases have involved Kirby’s examination of memory loss which can be viewed through albums with titles like Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia and pieces such as “Unmasking Alzheimers.” In 2008, he released Persistent Repetition of Phrases, which until recently was seen by many as his masterpiece. After releasing a brilliant triple album in 2009 called Sadly, The Future is No Longer What It Was under the name Leyland James Kirby, he returns as The Caretaker with An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (his sixth or seventh album, depending on your interpretation of his back catalog), an album that has already begun to garner him even more critical acclaim — including a rare 5/5 from us — while thrusting him further into the consciousness of listeners everywhere.
Prior to Persistent Repetition of Phrases you released all of the Caretaker albums on your V/vm imprint and now all of your releases are through your own History Always Favours the Winners (HAFTW) label. How did you end up releasing Persistent Repetition on Install?
You know, that was a real low time when I made that release. I was sick at the time and remember recording that release in the winter over a period of about a month, just refining. It actually sat on my drive for around six months gathering digital dust. David and Brian, who run Install, sent me a mail and their timing was perfect because they were saying how they would love to release something by The Caretaker and I zipped up the album and sent it to them and they immediately wanted to put it out. They seemed like good people, so we slipped it out on their label. I was as surprised as anyone by the response the album got. I think in many ways the fact it wasn’t on V/Vm Test helped it out too.
In your Mutek interview with The Wire, I loved the bit where the interviewer implied that your work as The Caretaker was using old crappy records and making them better, to which your reply was that the songs were already good to begin with. Do you feel like you have more reverence for these ballroom tunes going into making them Caretaker pieces than you did when you were destroying pop songs like Chris Deburgh’s “Lady in Red” as V/vm? I don’t mean to imply that you don’t actually like this music, because it seems like you wouldn’t mess with them at all to begin with if you didn’t enjoy them in some way.
Even though in some instances the processes are the same, everything is about creating a mood. There is a reverance with much of The Caretaker work, where the feeling created is one of loss for something you are not sure about. The only release [that] bucks that trend is Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, because there I was trying to make a collection which was very hard to remember, an audio fog in many ways. Trying to grasp a memory but failing each time.
“The main character is The Stranger, avenging all wrongs but never revealing his identity to people, just passing through with a hidden agenda.”
V/Vm in the phase between 1999 and around 2002 was all about abusing media and seeing what would happen with such abuses. Moods were created, confrontational in performance, absurd releases on vinyl and compact disc.The spirit was great, really, as you felt like in those years you really could infiltrate the establishment with such abuses as back then larger labels didn’t have such a dynamic web presence. V/Vm impacted in many ways beyond music also in terms of online exposure and distribution. Sadly, a lot of things got tagged “prankster,” but in fact, it was a deadly serious vehicle to experiment with. It followed no rules and was an honest product of its time.
After listening to An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, I was left with the feeling that you meant to let the listener actually hear more of these morose tunes than say the previous Caretaker albums and yet it still comes off as a pretty challenging listen because of the harsh jump cuts between tracks and the way several of the pieces purposefully skip obtrusively through the most melodic bits. In other words, where Persistent Repetition took the source material and seemed to obscure it, this album lets it breathe a little more. Did you set out with any intention of taking the project in this direction?
I guess the audio just took that direction this time around. The aim once I had listened to all the source material was to make something which, even with those jump cuts, would flow very well as a whole. As repetition is also a great motivator with certain Caretaker releases, it also made sense to repeat whole tracks too at times, giving a feeling of déjà vu throughout the release itself. I really hadn’t planned to make another Caretaker album at the time at all, as I was working on a soundtrack under this alias for Grant Gee’s upcoming film Patience - After Sebald, which will come out now later in the year. The fact this one happened as it did is a combination of playing a show in New York, shopping for records with Demdike Stare in Brooklyn, having a good digital recorder after taking a road trip with two girls from Madrid under the volcanic ash cloud last year, being made to leave the flat I was living in in Berlin because of what boils down to womanizing and by having a broken turntable handy in the same flat. Pure chance in action at all times.
Would you mind walking me through the general process of making a Caretaker piece versus what goes into something for The Stranger or your Leyland Kirby material?
It’s not so much about a general process, but more about being in a certain frame of mind. I’m very good now at realizing when I should be making music and on what particular project I should be working on. There is no real style or technique I employ; a lot of the time tracks just appear as if by magic and then just need refining in terms of atmosphere and mood.
Are you completely through with V/vm or is it likely that you might return to it again one day?
I played a live show last year as V/Vm in Madrid which was a total fiasco and a few people are always nagging me to do some more stuff… The V/Vm attitude is still very much alive and for sure will be returned to.
When you mentioned using the same tracks to create a sense of déjà vu on the new record, are you actually using the exact same tracks on the two versions of “An Empty Bliss Beyond This World” and “Mental Caverns Without Sunshine,” or are they slightly different? I listened to them back to back and wasn’t sure if I was tricking myself into believing they are a little different or whether they were actually identical.
They are different, but very close to being the same; it felt like a good thing to do on this kind of release as immediately upon first listen, you’re already questioning where you have heard this song before. Especially as on the released album, there is no tracklisting to help navigation.
“I can look back with the sense of achievement that somehow I survived in a very turbulent musical time (in terms of new media and distribution) and somehow it’s still working.”
You started using Ivan Seal’s art for the vinyl version of Persistent Repetition of Phrases and your Leyland Kirby triple album and continued with An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. How did you hook up with him, and since he’s also involved in sound art, is there a possibility the two of you could end up doing something together musically as well?
I have known Ivan since the earliest V/Vm days, and he has been on a couple of the compilations that came out. His work these days is incredible, almost timeless, playing with spaces and objects. It’s perfect for representing what I am doing, so I’m very flattered that he considers my own work being worthy of using his works. He just did this amazing spoken-word piece over here too, which was part of an exhibition he did here in Berlin, maybe at somepoint we can work together on something. Let’s hope so.
When you mentioned going through a bleak period in life while recording Persistent Repetition, is this what you were referring to on the HAFTW blog back when the Leyland Kirby records came out in 2009? I remember seeing something on there where you were talking about having a more positive outlook after the support for that album was strong.
Just a hard time financially and with deteriorating health, as when you have no cash, then health takes a beating. Diminishing returns it was. Sustaining yourself can be hard these days if you want to delve in deep into your work and you don’t come from money. Luckily, I have always retained a real hard core of people who follow what I do, so [I] survived those days and appreciate all the more when I am at now. Despite too having no cash, I also remained firm and just worked harder instead of just walking away from the situation.
Considering your work across all of your known aliases, there seems to be consensus that you are a workaholic. Given how many releases you’re putting out this year alone and coming off the back of a triple album, do you ever get tired or is this just the way you work and it’s normal?
I don’t think I’m a workaholic. I don’t work abnormal hours but work concentrated when inspired now, so things flow much faster that way. I never work when not inspired now and somehow that works. The hardest part is in financially surviving. This past winter was shocking really in terms of that, but the work flowed just fine around that. I did give it a year’s break between finishing the triple CD and putting something new out, just seems like there’s a flood of new things. It’s hard to say whether that will be an overload or not. I don’t think it will be, but let’s see — as always, it’s an adventure putting releases and works out there.
You mentioned Demdike Stare earlier. You guys seem to get lumped together under this “hauntological” banner often, what with your sound sources being older, though from vastly different parts of the musical spectrum. How do you feel about this term, and is it something that you have any regrets or concerns about being associated with?
Some magazines and journalists like to label things; I have no problem with that at all. The killer is now when you see groups and people who use the labels as the starting point for their work. They, in the end, dilute something that was pure, as of course in 1996 when I started recording the first Caretaker album, I had no idea about this concept. Funnily enough, I think Hauntology, the term, was first used by Simon Reynolds in The Wire, but there is no mention of me in that, so I’m a ghost even in that article.
“There is no real style or technique I employ; a lot of the time tracks just appear as if by magic and then just need refining in terms of atmosphere and mood.”
Does it seem strange at all that, even though you’ve been doing The Caretaker stuff for so long, people are only starting to come around to it in the last few years? I’m sure there are going to be those people for who An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is their first exposure to your work.
To be honest, it’s good that for some people it’s like that, as there’s a body of work there to find and explore should they wish too. The project has basically grown very organically over its time, with the odd bit of exposure here and there, but as far as I’m concerned, I look for no press so am always surprised when people approach me for interviews and do reviews of the work.
Since you reissued Persistent Repetition of Phrases on HAFTW after it was out of print, have you considered repressing any of the earlier Caretaker albums as well? I’d love to see We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow or A Stairway to the Stars on vinyl.
Possibly. There may be some reissues on vinyl. It’s something I have thought about as people often ask me. I just need to work out what and when.
Looking back on your previous work, is there any one of your earlier records that you really wish more people had gotten to hear or one that you think of more fondly than the others?
Not really, things naturally find their audiences if you leave them alone… without forcing things on people. The fact that most of my work has gone under the radar for so long is totally fine, as the reaction and exposure ultimately doesn’t impact on the work itself. I can look back with the sense of achievement that somehow I survived in a very turbulent musical time (in terms of new media and distribution) and somehow it’s still working. The amazing thing is after so long people are still finding it and are into it and maybe it’s even more relevant now than at any other time.
While there is a very obvious difference between your V/Vm work and The Caretaker and the Leyland Kirby material, I’m curious about The Stranger. What was the intent of this project and do you intend to do any more work under that moniker? Also was the name for the project taken from the Camus novel?
The Stranger is a bridge between V/Vm and The Caretaker. It’s more about creating an unsettling atmosphere and can also be about place. I plan to do a new album next year, all being well, and if I find the right motivation for it. I chose the name years ago after watching the Spaghetti Western High Plains Drifter. The main character is The Stranger, avenging all wrongs but never revealing his identity to people, just passing through with a hidden agenda.
Since your work as The Caretaker involves a great deal of association with the past or remembrance of things lost, have you ever felt like you belonged in a different past or time than your own?
No. I am very much of the here and now; I have no idea how people expect me to be sometimes. I mean, so many musicians you meet are academic and will talk endlessly about projects and ideas, whereas I’m interested where the next bar is and if I can make the bar girl give me free drinks, as a gentleman of the modern age seldom likes to barter with such things as legal tender.