From out of the Past [2019-08-24]Leyland James Kirby has been a singular figure in UK electronic music for over two decades. He first came to prominence in the late 1990s with the resolutely out-there V/VM, and associated V/VM Test Records; putting out a range of bewildering and often confrontational releases of plunderphonics, electronic and experimental noise. The label also came to be known for humorous and usually abrasive takes on pop culture figures like Chas and Dave, Frank Sinatra and the Krankies, as well as tongue in cheek deconstructions of Aphex Twin. It was however the music Kirby put out under the Caretaker moniker, beginning in 1999 with Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom, that really caught the imagination and would occupy him long after V/VM was brought to a close in 2008.
Like many of the releases on V/VM Test Records, the Caretaker's music relied on the manipulation of older material, in this case ballroom music from the first half of the 20th century. The original seed of the project - and its name - comes from those famous scenes in Kubrick's the Shining, where Jack Nicholson's character appears to fall between worlds, encountering a ghostly barman who utters the signature phrase "you're the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker". The early releases play on this notion of remembrance and haunted reimaginings of a forgotten golden age of glitz and glamour. The time degraded quality of the source records: monophonic, scratched, and suitably static soaked, formed an integral part of Kirby's compositional process as he would layer attenuated fuzz against looped fragments of melody which would emerge as if half remembered. The effect was striking, evoking feelings of melancholy and mystery. Cultural theorist Mark Fisher would later include the Caretaker among a group of artists, including Burial and the Ghost box label, he believed exemplified the concept of Hauntology; music which dealt with the fictitious reimagining of a lost past or lost opportunities.
Since 2005 and the 6CD box set Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, Kirby has increasingly taken the Caretaker project towards an explicit engagement with ideas around memory and memory disorders, including Alzheimer's disease. In addition, in 2009 he began releasing music under his own name, producing a series of records of ambient and experimental electronics, amplifying many of the themes present in the Caretaker, while developing his own signature style of playing. In 2016 he announced the final set of recordings for the Caretaker would be a six instalment project titled Everywhere at the End of Time. The final double LP instalment was released on his own History Always Favours the Winners label this year. Leyland kindly agreed to an email interview where he discussed the history of the Caretaker project, his working practices and creative outlook.
M[m] - Back in 2001 I bought the first Caretaker record from a now defunct shop called These Records, which was based out of a living room in North Lambeth. Fast forward 17 years and I’m watching you sipping whisky while performing on stage at London's Barbican. What do you think it is about the Caretaker's music that has resonated with listeners so well over the years?
LK - I was chatting with one of the brothers who ran These Records at the Barbican after that show and remember their shop down at the Elephant and Castle very well. They shot the 'come on Eileen' video on that street. The Caretaker work has always been special to me through those years. I've done my best to do the work and say very little. Trying not to let people down who follow the work, with zero interest in promoting it traditionally. It exists, it's enough. It can be trusted which in this day and age is something as mostly it's smoke and mirrors out there where money and hype rule. It has its own sound and is its own thing, it belongs outside of scenes. Always I looked for movement and new angles, culminating in the final work 'Everywhere, at the end of time'. Its relative success shows you can rely on just work still.
M[m] - Everywhere at the End of Time has clearly been a huge undertaking and has garnered considerable interest. Those familiar with the project might certainly recognise the style of the first two volumes, but as we move deeper into the later editions, the sound gets deconstructed to such a degree that the listener loses almost all bearings. I was especially struck by the final few minutes of the last set where you appear to go full circle, deploying a particularly powerful recording which I believe you first used on the Caretaker debut in 1999. Would I be right in saying that along with a preoccupation with memory and cognitive breakdown there's also a sort of narrative arc across the project too?
LK - It was work, what was released is only the tip of the iceberg as you can imagine. Snapshots of moments, symptoms and feelings. If created on different days and in different moods the releases would be completely different. There was no plan and the material was not overworked.
Of course, when dealing with dementia as a subject it's emotive. I took a chance that people wouldn't see the releases in negative ways. The first stages were merely a set up to allow the final stage work to go in new unexplored directions. In terms of narrative the more you know from the project's history then of course the more it should resonate.
M[m] - You've used a wide variety of sources for the Caretaker's spectral re-imaginings; from pre-war pop to classical and choral music. Are there any recordings that you keep finding yourself coming back to, if only for a short phrase or even just the aged quality of record itself?
LK - I have a couple of old self-pressed white label records from the 1950's and 60's and certain pieces from those give a great tone and they have been consistently appearing on all of the releases. Everything on those records is completely uncredited which adds its own mystique to The Caretaker albums. As always, I know some people want to know the source material used. It's great they can find it out, but with those albums it's impossible.
M[m] - Since in a way your method involves drawing out qualities from the source material that might not immediately be apparent, do you believe it's better if listeners don't recognise the original source and so only have your work to experience? I know for an artist like Burial there's always lots of talk about his sample sources and what they might suggest about him as a person. This might especially be the case with artists like yourself who are quite private.
LK - Personally I don't remember often what has been used, probably people out there who are desperate to know actually know more than me. It's not so important to me to know, only to get the correct feeling for the release I had in mind at the time. I can understand with Burial why people would try and look at what he samples suggest of him as a person as he has only done one or two interviews. It's emotional and a similar style throughout that work. The Caretaker is a small detached part of the work as a whole I have done through the years. If you were to look at all my output as a whole then it's completely confusing. So much is not around and has not been given full context by choice when it is out there.
M[m] - In the last few years you’ve almost exclusively used the paintings of Ivan Seal as cover art for your releases. When I look at his images - with all their distortions and suggestions of objects mutating and decaying - they could almost be the visual representation of the Caretaker's approach to sound. What is it about his work that first attracted you? Am I correct in that you’re joining him for his first solo show in France this year?
LK - I've known Ivan for many years going right back to the earliest V/Vm Test days in Manchester.
We grew up in similar environments and both ended up living in Berlin, Ivan's still there now.
So, there's a mutual appreciation of that journey and experience and of living through certain times.
I always give Ivan 100% carte blanche on how to represent the releases as he wants. There is a great mutual trust there always. We just had an exhibition together at the FRAC in Clermont Ferrand where alongside Ivan's paintings I put sound in the space. Trying to make it like being inside of a Caretaker release, so putting certain long form components in rooms and allowing the space to mix itself. It worked in a weird way, there was no real plan before going into the space, so it was a good challenge.
M[m] - The late Mark Fisher was a consistent champion of your work, grouping it with other artists that he associated with the idea of Hauntology. An interview with yourself features in his book Ghosts of My Life and he wrote a short essay that came with the Caretaker’s 6CD set Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia. Would it be right to say that that release marked a shift in emphasis for the Caretaker, towards ideas of memory disorder and later Alzheimer's and forms of dementia? Also, how did you first encounter Mark and the idea of hauntology?
LK - I followed Mark's k-punk blog from fairly early on and at one point approached him to see if he'd be willing to provide some sleeve notes for me for the 'Theoretically...' release. It certainly was a shift at that point for that release, as then it looked at a specific condition, before then releases were simply memories or echoes of something. Hauntology I am aware of, but I never set out to make something hauntological. For me, I was working this angle long before the term was used musically. From well before the first release in 1999, looking for emotion and feelings within loops and what then was more or less a completely forgotten music.
M[m] - Fisher used to argue that hauntology wasn't a function of nostalgia and was something more metaphysical. I don't happen to think he was right about that, or at least in appraising much of the music that now gets described as "hauntological", it all seems very nostalgic, especially for a certain time during the late 60s and early 70s. A era which its worth remembering in comparison to today was incredibly monocultural. I hope you don't take offence, but for me one of things that separates your work - both under your own name and the Caretaker - from other music grouped under hauntology, is the romanticism and explicit melancholy at its heart. The sense of pathos and loss is much more tangible than with the hauntological notion of a lost future that only existed in its potential. I'm particularly thinking of releases like 'We, So Tired of All the Darkness in Our Lives', and of course the Sebald material. To what degree is this a reflection of your worldview? And what with events spiralling so much at the moment, have you felt you've wanted to use your music to make more of an overt comment on the state of things?
LK - I never made something to fit a scene or style. I just make things that interest me. I think the releases which are being made to be nostalgic work on a level, it depends what you want. There's good and bad, I mean we live in a World where Public Service Broadcasting exists and can sell complete rubbish to a big audience, so there's a desire for this work on larger scales if it's presented to people. You are right though, there's no emotion for me in this, same with the Ghostbox work which I like, but it's removed itself on an emotional level as it's selling the idea of old work from that ITV Schools era of TV morning programs like Picture Box.
It would be easy also to jump on the bandwagon of how things are but we know it's a money driven shit-show everywhere right now. I use no traditional forms of promotion, so to find my work already somebody has to be outside of what is being presented to them. So it's a given that they are looking for something else. 'We so tired...' I slipped out for free as a lot of people can't afford to buy music but want this music. It's why too I release to YouTube in high quality so people can listen or not, it can help or cannot. It was work which was just sat around on drives. I have tons of work like that.
M[m] - In the interview you gave for the Wire in 2009 you mentioned a project you were working on at the time which would be Caretaker-esque, but would focus on the historical event of the Miner's strike in 1984 and use old VHS footage and audio. Did this ever get off the ground? It sounded like an interesting idea, applying the kinds of techniques you do for Caretaker records to an actual historical event.
LK - Like many things and ideas here it's being worked on. I think I lost a little impetus as all of a sudden you had all these twee documentaries being broadcast about the miners’ strike. It's the anniversary culture of now. I will say though I sourced a lot of footage which is never shown, which shows how the Television manipulated events. There is some real raw emotion mainly from the miners and their families in there. It's all degraded naturally from being on VHS tapes for over 30 years. So not this fake digital effect. I will get back to it as it's not a comment which was planned, just loops of footage which is never shown. Searching for something. More of a renegade production, like how I remembered it from being nine and ten years old from the news.
M[m] - It's interesting to think of a Caretaker type project being realised from the archive material from an actual historical event. Foucault once described his writing as a "history of the present", and that all historical writing starts out from problems posed by the current epoch. With the Caretaker you're working with materials from the past, but to what extend do you feel your work is responding to the present?
LK - Yeah I should look at the Miners work again, the problem I have is Jeremy Deller did his version already and the same with rave. This kind of BBC/Establishment repackaging of something, make it saleable, stripping away the actual real emotion. I have some great footage from the BBC/ITV news from the miners you never see on these retrospective documentaries where it's just the same fight at Orgreave each time, the same clips of Scargill and Thatcher. It's like brainwashing how it's presented back now.
Rave is the same, you watch the BBC version and zero mention of how the drugs effected what happened, the fact it was also youthful rebellion at its core and the perfect storm. Drugs, youth and new styles of music appearing almost monthly. It was an escape from the corporate. It is what it is now, business. A nice safe installation at Saatchi and Saatchi and corporate funded vehicles to resell the fake Disneyfication of what it was. It's owned like everything else and commoditized. Just one point of view being presented over and over so it's fact. I saw people stabbed and people with machetes fighting drug wars on the dance floors in Manchester. Often you were on edge.
Work is always about the present here and always was. If you look at old V/Vm work I was doing then, it was abusing the new tools which were available. Seeing what can happen, it's the same now, just the tools are a lot better and I'm more selective on what goes out. The present always slips into the attitude of why things are being made and on statements I make or the silence I keep.
M[m] - My personal favourite Caretaker record is Patience (After Sebald), not least as I'm very fond of the book which it's influenced by. That record, which formed the soundtrack to Grant Gee's film about the life and work of W.G. Sebald, brought your music into the orbit of writers like Iain Sinclair who references Sebald often and the film maker Chris Petit. Both of them in different ways deal with ideas of place, memory and the possibility of living at a time when experience and tradition are almost entirely erased. Could you say a little about how you got involved in that project? Do you feel you're working in a vaguely similar direction?
LK - Grant Gee approached me to work with him on that and it was a real pleasure as he has a trust in what I do and leaves me to it. It's rare to have that complete trust. He was after a mood and knew I could provide that, the music made was from material he'd sourced from old recordings of Schubert's 'Die Winterreise'. The loops were created just before I began recording 'An empty bliss beyond this World' even though it was released after that album. I can see how people could say it's a similar direction I work in, I like looking at memory always as a subject. I work on many different things also, some directions are available, others have long since been deleted, many never get shared.
M[m] - Is soundtrack work something you’d like to do more of in the future? Did it feel like a different process working on material someone else had chosen compared to when you can source your own and build it from the ground up? How did the original Die Winterreise recordings strike you when you heard them?
LK - Lately I've seen a lot of people doing a lot of soundtrack work and somehow losing themselves in it all. When they come back to making their own work for release I think the work suffers. It's a delicate balance scoring film and keeping your artistic vision. It's a different mindset as you have really to function to help create the mood the director wants and completely remove in some cases what you want. When I worked on 'Patience' and also 'Innocence of Memories' with Grant I was left to my own devices, apart from certain source material and if something was lacking. Grant knew my work and trusted me and I gave him the audio I made and trusted him to make it fit and left him free to edit these works to fit also. So it was a very fluid process. A lot of film work, scored to actual picture, has no interest really for me, so to do more scoring I'd need a similar trust level which is hard to find. As he knew the work I can do and had visited it was no surprise that the source material he chose for Patience worked very well.
M[m] - For me one of most fascinating aspects of your music as the Caretaker is how, no-matter which sources of material you're using there's always an indelibly personal element present. This has been heightened I think over the last few releases as you've started using these very long, almost poetic titles for both the Caretaker and the music you release under your own name. What's the significance of this practice for you?
LK - Everything is personal, even Caretaker work. I lived in the work for many years so in working on the final series of releases this made that work tough. The work due to the nature of the elements used always carries a certain emotion, so in naming works then I just try to amplify this a little. It could exist untitled also, maybe some future works will be.
M[m] - You've mentioned a few times that with the sources you use for the Caretaker you're always searching for something. Are you able to name that quality? You've said that it always tends to carry a certain emotion; is that feeling something you believe you're excavating from out of the source material, in the manner of an archaeologist, or is perhaps more to do with your/our relation with what are effectively sounds from a lost world? I find there's always something uncanny about hearing music produced and played by people dead for decades, like old film from the start of the 20th century, you wonder if the world you're seeing actually existed.
LK - It's hard to pinpoint it's a personal reaction to a phrase in terms of Caretaker work. Some just immediately to me carry more weight, or maybe I know if it's slowed down then it can represent something heavier. I'm working different angles and areas right now, in the shadows, work is mostly futuristic where I'm always searching, always for the right energy.
M[m] - I guess the last question to ask is the obvious one: why after completing such a stellar set of recordings have you decided to end the Caretaker project?
LK - It's ended in terms of releases, it will still exist as a live project as I plan to play some shows as I turned down so many to complete that series. A few performances, not too many, as to keep it special. The attitude of The Caretaker releases will also be employed as and when I see fit on future works. The Caretaker releases that exist are as good as it gets though using only ballroom/1930's music as a source material. 'An empty bliss' could only be copied and get diluted each time if I carried on going through the motions to provide more and I'm not too comfortable with that. I felt I could get away with revisiting it one more time within the early stage framework of the 'Everywhere at the end of time' series as I knew the final three stages would be different and progressive enough and allow me so much space to experiment with sound within the constraints of symptoms of dementia. The challenge always was in making that process through these stages sound organic and being respectful to the disease.
All photographs courtesy of wilkinson-photo.com
Leylands Bandcamp is hereDuncan Simpson