Madness, Memory & Mindfulness: An Interview With Leyland Kirby

V/Vm, The Caretaker, Leyland Kirby – over the last fifteen years, James Kirby has been many different things to many different people. Rory Gibb speaks to him about surviving his career so far.

Sonic terrorist. Chris De Burgh demolisher. Violator of copyright law. Composer of otherworldly ambient drone. Pop cultural archaeologist. Frustrated future thinker. The ‘previous experience’ section of James Leyland Kirby’s CV contains enough apparently contradictory roles to fill out most peoples’ lifetimes.

But then Kirby isn’t exactly ‘most people’. His numerous projects and prolific output are supported by a work ethic that’s bracing at the very least, and at the furthest extreme would appear to verge on life threatening. "The hungry fighter is more dangerous than the fighter who has it all at his disposal," he tells me via email. "There is only the work, regardless of external pressures and the day to day struggle. The key is always the work, not the networking, not filling out taxes, not how you live or the struggles you undertake to do things, not the days when you can’t afford a decent meal. The external only fires the work itself."

Starting off in the mid-nineties under the pseudonym V/Vm, Kirby’s early works cast him as the arch provocateur, jamming his fingers into pop’s superstructure and scrambling everything around. The results arrived as a stream of subversive, facetious comments on pop culture – gravel-throated swamp things voicing ‘Lady In Red’; an entire set of copyright-violating takes on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ that provoked the ire of the ZTT label; a record entitled Help Aphex Twin, housed in The Richard D James Album‘s artwork to allow it to sneak into the Aphex rack in record shops. In 2006 he pushed the project to its natural conclusion by releasing a track a day via his site, a monstrous undertaking he says "nearly killed" him.

Simultaneously, his music as The Caretaker took Jack Torrance’s character in The Shining as a jump-off point for a series of moving studies of mind and memory, and the things that happen when they begin to disintegrate. The sprawling Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia was concerned with the disorder of the same name where the brain is unable to form short term memories (see: Christopher Nolan’s Memento), and the soft ballroom music that makes up this year’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World sounds scooped and half-dissolved, lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

Most of his recent – and most intensely personal – work has appropriately been released under his own name. Leyland Kirby’s immense 2009 triple-album Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was reimagined his music once again, as wind-whipped, piano-dappled ambient suites composed entirely by Kirby himself. Last year he was silent, but he’s followed it up with a characteristically busy 2011: two new Caretaker albums; a new Leyland Kirby album, Eager To Tear Apart The Stars; a series of four 12"s under the name Intrigue & Stuff. Again the subject matter deals with issues of time and transience – Sadly was a lament for the death of flying-car futurism, and the Intrigue 12"s delve further into that territory. The first volume consisted of several towering, Vangelis-esque synth cityscapes, and the upcoming third edition evokes Detroit techno as left to corrode away to near-nothingness.

Speaking on the phone from Berlin, where he’s lived for the past few years, Kirby has an easy, affable charm, with a bone dry sense of humour that sees him properly laugh only once during our two hour conversation, a single, deep, mirthful chuckle. Perhaps surprisingly for someone whose music has been so frequently confrontational, he’s disarmingly open, often slipping into stories of heavy nights, pretty ladies and accidentally quaffing perfume.

Kirby has also very generously given us an exclusive track to give away free with this interview. Entitled ‘Remember Us’, it’s a sumptuous, softly beautiful piano-led piece that works nicely as a companion to Eager To Tear Apart The Stars. "Something resonates there that I can’t put my finger on," he says of the track. "I guess it slipped through the net when I was compiling the last album, a missed chance. Always missing chances. It really provokes something within me when I listen to it, strange beauty about reflection and time passing." Listen and download below.

Leyland Kirby – Remember Us by theQuietus

How did Eager To Tear Apart The Stars come together? This year a lot of things have turned up from you.

James Leyland Kirby: It’s been a busy year. Last year I decided I didn’t want to put anything out because I needed time to rest [after Sadly]. But of course I was still working very hard all year on music, so I’ve got a lot of material. For the new album, I thought it’d be nice to put something out which isn’t as grand as the last one. It’s a lot more accessible, because it’s short. It really sets a mood. [I set out] to try and make something a bit more personal as well, because there’s a lot of music being made these days, but there’s not very many personal things.

So is ‘Leyland Kirby’ more of a personal project?

JLK: The albums are, definitely. They start from no sounds whatsoever and everything’s built up, slowly but surely, on these tracks. It’s no samples, all synths and virtual synths, and that’s it.

[Later, via email] The creation of these tracks is non traditional. I can’t read music, I have no desire to read music or to follow such rules. Everything is created from experience and experimentation, and with a desire to convey emotion and feeling. There is this lack of feeling in most things these days, a distance between the creator and listener. For me [my] piano tracks don’t follow musical rules, they only follow what I think sounds good. There are mistakes in there, I don’t shoot for perfection, as perfect things lack emotion and feel calculated. I feel cheated when I listen to other people’s work sometimes, as it can sound too perfect and calculated.

So what actually triggered the shift towards your Leyland Kirby project?

JLK: The Caretaker has always been around as a project, and for many years I was destroying a lot of things with V/Vm. [But] the V/Vm project ran its course. At a certain time I thought ‘There’s not really much more can be done with that’. Sometimes it’s good to flip things around 180 degrees, and say ‘Instead of smashing something apart, I’m going to make something much more beautiful now’. Which will add weight to all the stuff that was smashed apart as well. Because for many years people would send me messages saying ‘You can’t make music, what’s the point, this is ridiculous’. So it’s nice to show you can do both.

You were getting a lot of negativity?

JLK: [V/Vm] always polarised people, they either loved or hated it, which is a great thing. It’s nice to provoke that kind of passion in people. It was an incredible project; I still can’t really make sense of it, really. So that’s why it’s not even available any more, everything’s just disappeared for a while until I can work out what it was all about.

So you’re mulling over the project before you do anything more with it.

JLK: Possibly. I wouldn’t say it was completely finished, there’s definitely room for that kind of thing. There’s definitely a point to it, even just a comment on something. Because of course some of these projects were ridiculous.

Have you paid much attention to the stuff Oneohtrix Point Never’s been making over the last few years? He’s done a few things that aren’t a million miles thematically from your V/Vm stuff, whether inspired by or accidentally.

JLK: It’s probably just accidental. He did the Chris De Burgh thing, I saw that. It’s quite odd that we’d both choose that track. There’s definitely something about Chris De Burgh, I think it’s his eyebrows. Very strange eyebrows, Chris De Burgh. He’s a very small man as well. I actually gave him a copy of the ‘Lady In Red’ mix I did on vinyl, I handed it to him and said ‘I think you might know that one’, and he just smiled at me. I never heard anything back, but he must have listened to it. He didn’t want to sue me, so that’s quite nice.

Have you ever had legal trouble with your V/Vm material?

JLK: Only when I did those Frankie Goes To Hollywood ‘Relax’ records. And I knew that was going to happen, it was too well done. The cover [art] was incredible, exactly the same as the originals. A friend of mine was working at ZTT [Frankie’s record label] as well, so he was telling me about these meetings they were having about it.

But that was a comment. I loved that track. When I was very young it was very important to me, good energy around it, fantastic production. Then for years they would just get the latest techno producer to just slam out a worthless remix of it every time. Every 3 or 4 years a new version of ‘Two Tribes’ comes out with the latest drum pattern on there. It’s a very tired way that the industry repackages things. And none of it’s good. It’s like you’ve made the drink once, and then you’ve drunk half of it, then you’ll top it up with water again. And it gets weaker every time, and in the end you lose what it was that you were remixing in the first place.

Your take was the same spirit as the original, do you think?

JLK: I think so. It was to push it in a similar way, to find people at the time who I thought were doing exciting stuff and would do something different with it. For me, it was a very meaningful record to make. In the end Holly Johnson [Frankie frontman] bought a copy! But I refunded it, I said ‘Come on, you can’t buy this’. I was speaking to the woman who did the original artwork, and she said he’d really enjoyed it. The first concert I went to was Frankie Goes To Hollywood, so it was a nice completed circle. It was the best result I could have had. I lost cash on this project, I was getting lawyers’ letters from ZTT, these crazy fifty page documents about why I shouldn’t be doing this. I was just sending them the most ridiculous responses back, to the point that in the end they just stopped sending letters.

That’s one way of dealing with it.

JLK: And then they said ‘We want these records’. So I smashed a load of them, and sent them a load of broken records through the post. And that was that. I think that was more or less the last physical release I did on V/Vm. Then I was giving all this audio away, this one track a day, which was crazy. It almost killed me. Then after that I was at this point where I couldn’t really see what I could do for six, twelve months. I didn’t do very much, it was basically survival.

So then you started [new label] History Always Favours The Winners. Was there any particular difference you wanted to implement, compared to previous projects?

JLK: Possibly. It was to add more emotion, add more of myself, be a bit more open.

I like that you’re very direct and demonstrative about the ideas and themes that inform your music. A lot of other people seem almost to make a point of not putting too much of their personalities into their music, or of not giving too much away.

JLK: I’ve been like that in the past, where you do stuff and there’s no emotion attached. If you’re destroying a Chris De Burgh record there’s not going to be too much emotion around that. Well, there will be, but it’s not that kind of emotion. That was the main thing, to make something completely different from the stuff that’s gone before. You can only listen to people saying you can’t make good tracks for so long.

Sadly does have something very emotionally accessible about it, more so than anything you’d ever made before. How was the process of making that record? It’s huge, I imagine it must have been quite a tiring undertaking.

JLK: It was a crazy time, completely and utterly on non-stop chaos, for the full year. And then whenever I escaped that chaos, I would go back to the flat and work. Then I’d finish, go out and it’d be more chaos. Endlessly out drinking, endlessly out with a ton of different girls, just a completely debauched time. So the fact that Sadly… came out of it is quite interesting, because you wouldn’t think that. It was an incredibly fun time, but the work was very difficult, and emotionally I probably wasn’t the best.

Maybe it was the need for relaxation that your body was obviously crying out for, coming out in your music.

JLK: It probably was. That album, more than any, is really like a diary. It sounds like a cliche, but it is – it’s a diary of one year’s complete chaos and debauchery. Those were the calmer moments, where I was trying to channel what the hell was actually happening.

I’m intrigued by your Intrigue & Stuff records. They’re quite different again from the full-lengths. Was there any idea behind those, or did they just form?

There’s no real idea behind these, apart from to make some good records. And the response has been very good. I was just trying to make things with a different energy to the albums. The albums are a lot more serious, but they’re a lot more fun, these 12"s, like pop records. I’m waiting to see what people think of the third one. There’s a couple of tracks on there that are really strange, you don’t know what they are, they could kind of be seen as techno but aren’t. That’s what I [felt like] – I can’t work it out myself, it’s driving and it makes me want to move a bit.

And The Caretaker has obviously been another facet of this year.

A huge facet. It’s incredible. It’s really opened up the audience. The V/Vm stuff was very influential, but right now the interest has never been bigger in what I’m doing. Which is always very humbling. Already this year there’s another Caretaker album coming out, the soundtrack to a film. That album was actually made before the one released earlier this year, but it’s a lot more a winter album, it’s a lot darker.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to start working with ideas of time and memory as a substrate and subject matter? They’re probably the themes that recur most in your music. And though they were made more explicit with The Caretaker I guess there’s a level at which they were also quite strong themes in the V/Vm material too.

JLK: Just natural progression, really. V/Vm often played with altered realities, as does the work of The Caretaker. In a strange way, recently memory has also become very important for everybody, as we are always sold the idea of capture and recollection via the internet these days. Store your life, manage your memories, share your experiences, to the point that [there are] people out there who feel under so much pressure to do this that they don’t actually live at all now. Time, too, when we get older, also appears in different ways. When you’re a child everything seems to run in slow motion. [As we get] older our perception of time changes and everything seems to go double speed, as making time is always precious. Maybe my recent work is influenced by the ongoing realisation that we don’t have many days really to make any kind of impact, and often things seem completely pointless and nonsensical.

What was the actual genesis behind the Caretaker project? Was there something in particular that sparked it off?

It’s the scene of course from The Shining, that’s a complete reference. And Pennies From Heaven, this series was incredible, with amazing use of ballroom music. And this old American film called Carnival Of Souls, which uses exactly the same, this really haunting organ music.

How did that draw you through to these themes of memory and memory loss?

I think it just does, doesn’t it? For example The Shining, that’s mental breakdown. I don’t know, if you actually start looking at the brain and when things actually do go wrong it’s very scary. We’re only one bump on the head away from entering this dark, disorienting world.

It’s very scary. If things start to go wrong then what you perceive as being reality actually isn’t, it’s something completely different. And famously, people as they got older have started seeing dead people, people from the past, and that’s their reality because the brain’s misfiring. I’m very interested in these kinds of stories. Music’s probably the last thing to go for a lot of people with advanced Alzheimer’s. There are a lot of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s who just hum the same songs over and over again.

I actually played your latest Caretaker album to a friend of mine who doesn’t know anything about you or your music, and doesn’t usually listen to a lot of this kind of stuff. It was just on at dinner, and I told her the ideas behind it, and she found it a really intense listen.

It is emotionally charged if you think of it in such a way, it’s like this disintegrating brain. It’s strange to me, because I’ve had some random people get in touch with me who’ve never heard anything of mine before, but they’ve come across the album, and one guy got in touch with me and said it was really beautiful to him, because he’d lost his mother to Alzheimer’s, and now his father’s got it as well. It’s always very humbling when you hear responses like that. A lot of people turn around and say ‘it’s super easy, I could do this’ – but then it definitely takes a lot of work, to find the actual parts on these records.

Was there a particular theme you wanted An Empty Bliss Beyond This World to have?

JLK: More disintegration than the others. Parts are barely audible. The one before [Persistent Repetition Of Phrases] really opened a lot of doors as well. It got a lot of attention. It was odd because at the same time [as that record] I put out that record as The Stranger which I still think is a better album, but nobody was really interested in that album. All these combinations of things have somehow worked. But the brilliant thing for me is that I’m never under pressure so I can do what I want. I live in a very humble way, I don’t really have an extravagant lifestyle.

You’ve gotten to this point on your own terms, so you’ve earned the ability to continue in that way – you’ve never compromised, but you’ve gained interest.

JLK: Of course. The only problem I have is that I make too much. It’s unbelievable the amount of music here I have that’s unreleased, and I know that if I put it out, it would be too much for people. Because I love working, I have this inbuilt need. I saw my dad go out every day for 35, 40 years to work, and that rubs off in the fact that you get a similar work ethic. I love working on new things. The worst thing for me is all the other nonsense around it all.

When you’re finally in a position where you can do what you want to do, you’ve got to be very self-disciplined. A lot of people cannot do this – especially in Berlin, I’ve seen so many people come here, and they arrive with all these big ideas, and then they find that the party outside is endless. It does not stop. They just go out and lose themselves.

[Later, via email] I look today really at where I am and I feel like I’m nowhere in terms of being traditionally successful, but at the same time I have more than I could have ever imagined having, and it’s amazing really that after all this time I still have the same attitude I started with. The music may have changed, and it will constantly keep changing. People who are interested now will fall by the wayside, I will try to survive to create what interests me, as people like me need to do this, but we don’t understand why, as we have no business plan or career. No desire to network with people and be the faces of something, no need for fame or fortune, only a need to play live if the show will be fun or is for friends.

The journey of making the work may be unimportant to me, but the journey the work can take you on, if you’re honest and have trust in yourself and are willing to make mistakes and take risks, can always take us to the stars. The endless struggle for survival has strange and incredible rewards.

Leyland Kirby/The Caretaker plays at Unsound Festival, Krakow, this Friday, 14th October. Leyland Kirby’s Eager To Tear Apart The Stars and The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World are both out now on History Always Favours The Winners.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today