Despite a baffling work rate which has seen V/VM release more material over twelve years than any listener could reasonably be expected to digest in a lifetime, James Kirby is surprised and faintly miffed by the resurgent interest in his output thanks to The Caretaker. Ironically, it was the release of The Caretaker’s 2008 album Persistent Repetition of Phrases which attracted the most acclaim Kirby has experienced for years, yet it was also one of the few works he has created that was outsourced to a label other than the one he helms himself, V/VM Test.
“The label (US based label Installsound) only pressed 500 and we didn’t do any promo whatsoever, so I have no idea why so many people enjoyed that.” Kirby is speaking from his home in Berlin, where he moved to from Stockport – near Manchester – two and a half years ago. “The album was getting in all these lists at the end of the year like Wire magazine. It’s very strange, because Wire hasn’t reviewed V/VM in a long time.”
V/VM Test has hosted a vast palette of musical styles, ranging from Belgian New Beat tributes to skewed appropriations of MOR rock (miraculously only once resulting in legal action), but Kirby’s music has always been overshadowed by his notoriety. In a climate where sage intellectualism dominates most experimental electronic music, Kirby is perhaps just too weird. Artistically speaking, Kirby is fearless, often to the detriment of his work being taken seriously. The music can be horribly technicoloured and garish as on V/VM’s 2000 album Sick Love – which siphoned any feeling of ‘love’ from popular love songs – or minimal, multi-faceted and melancholic, as with his The Caretaker and The Stranger projects. To detail every crest and trough of Kirby’s output here would be impossible. But so prolific is he that for listeners and critics who dip their toes into a particularly arcane spot in his oeuvre, they’ll often be scared away from another project that might be more palatable to their tastes.
One of Kirby’s most ambitious projects was the V/VM 365 project, which saw him release one track for each day of 2006, released daily as a free download on the V/VM website and accompanied by a short description of his day, often resulting in some hilariously candid tales of touring, recording and excessive drinking. Kirby ended up recording 602 tracks over that period despite a year-long flu, a move from England to Berlin, a world tour and a dislocated knee thanks to one of his famously demented V/VM live shows. “I was rolling around this venue and ended up rolling down a flight of stairs and dislocating my knee, which was quite painful,” Kirby recalls. “I had to bang the knee back into place and carry on with the show. I had a friend playing with me and he sliced his hand open at the same show. It was a real mess. A great, great show.”
“The shows were anti ‘we’re-gonna-stand-behind-this-laptop-and-be-really-intricate,’” he says of the V/VM live shows. “It gets so boring. I remember being at the Sonar festival in Barcelona and that year  was when playing a laptop was really going off. But the V/VM show involved miming songs and jumping around, and it made an impact. Up to that point it was just guys in front of laptops staring at the screen.”
Sifting through various free downloads and physical V/VM releases, it’s understandable why Kirby has always been on the periphery of critical acceptance. There’s a belligerence towards expectations, a defiance of how ‘real’ music should be packaged and consumed, and again, an inscrutable freakishness that is difficult to critically navigate. Kirby has always worked in earnest, producing works at such a rate that an observer barely has a chance to deconstruct one and discover its real purpose before another release arrives to contradict it.
But since January this year, V/VM Test is over. Much of its output will stay available on the internet, where it has been amassing over the course of a decade. “I don’t think there’s much need for record labels these days,” Kirby says of the closure. “They’ve served their purpose. We’re in a different time now, you can create things without it being labelled. As a vehicle it reached its end destination and it’s time to try something else.” Kirby will continue to release material independently, though the success of last year’s Caretaker album Persistent Repetition of Phrases was more successful, he believes, because it wasn’t released on V/VM Test. “I think people just misunderstood a lot of things [related to V/VM Test]. They get a general idea from one thing that’s done. A lot of the stuff that I released just disappeared, it just got missed. Whereas other things got a lot of attention and some things got heaps.”
“It’s huge. Even for me it’s crazy. I was looking at [the V/VM output] the other day and I thought ‘what can I do with this’. It’s too big. It’’s gotten really confusing for people. To re-focus people on some new things it’s necessary to put that whole thing in the background as some kind of archive. And just work on some new things and see what happens from there.”
The Caretaker is currently Kirby’s most popular project, partially thanks to recent discourse triggered by critics Mark Fisher (aka K-Punk) and Simon Reynolds, who count The Caretaker among a handful of key artists and labels who fit into the concept of Hauntology as it relates to music. The word, originally coined by Jacques Derrida to describe the spectral persistence of revolutionary ideals in the wake of the ‘end of history’ (post 1989, post Cold War), applies to music that borrows from the past; styles that – like The Caretaker’s comatose and reverb-drenched ballroom appropriations – project a sense of being haunted by past ideals. In a musical climate where real revolutions in style and performance seem impossible, the concept follows that artists of The Caretaker’s ilk align themselves aesthetically with sonic worlds long considered past their used by date, styles that embody a particular era and were quickly usurped or forgotten. There’s also a sense of unfinished business: of finding the real potential in these largely forgotten ideas and breathing new life into them.
The Caretaker was birthed by Kirby’s fascination with the ballroom scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. During the scene, Jack Nicholson’s character – in an anger-fuelled malaise – enters an empty ballroom which suddenly becomes populated by ghostly dancers revelling to the sound of 1920s-1930s ballroom music. While Kirby traces his fascination with the style further back than his first experience with The Shining, that scene was integral to The Caretaker mode of operation, which sees him plundering old ballroom 78s, drenching them in reverb, slowing them down, looping vital melodic motifs and bringing the crackle and decay of the vinyl to the forefront of the mix.
“If you listen to the source material without it being affected it has these really strange moods.” Kirby says. “[This music] was popular between the two world wars, and there’s a lot of loss in these songs. A lot of people went to war and never came back and so a lot of the songs and lyrics are very dark from this time, and it comes through in the music. As soon as you start messing around with it you get these feelings just from the tracks themselves [before manipulation].”
“It was a strange time in Europe back then, so a lot of the music I’ve used is European. Of course there’s a lot of American stuff from the same time but it doesn’t seem to have this ghostly theme. If you listen to a lot of the lyrics there’s a lot about ghosts – they talk a lot about loss and ghosts, it’s a constant theme in this music.”
Kirby cites Albert Allick Bowlly, a South African born British jazz singer of the era as one of his favourite artists in the canon. Al Bowlly sang the song ‘Midnight The Stars In You’, which scored the final scene in The Shining. “He’s great,” Kirby enthuses, “[His stuff is] easy to find and cheap. He was the best singer of that whole era but he died in the Blitz in London, a bomb landed on his doorstep. They reckon he would have been bigger than Bing Crosby because he had the best voice.”
“He had a very haunting voice.” He continues. “He’s the guy that sang in the last scene in The Shining, the one that finishes the film. That was a very difficult record to find for a long time because Kubrick bought the rights to that song and it disappeared. I managed to find it on a 78 and I was very lucky. It was very cheap too, a two pounds purchase in mint condition.”
Kirby released three albums of disorientating, melancholic ballroom mutations concerned with memory before changing tact with 2006′s Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia. This 6CD set – still available for free download but also packaged in a limited boxset – uses the mental illness of Anterograde Amnesia as its theme: a form of amnesia where the sufferer retains all memories previous to procuring the ailment, but nothing thereafter.
Sonically, …Anterograde Amnesia consists of hardly audible, oblique smudges of sound and ambience, infrequently blossoming into discernible melody. The purpose of the album is to emulate the disorientation of memory loss. Describing the mechanics of the project, Kirby says the release is “confusing because the tracks aren’t numbered, but are all of a similar [short] length.” Due to the length and rarity of sonic ‘events’, the listener is unable to make sense of the ebb and flow of sound; repeated listens will not offer coherence. Instead, the album is a gigantic swath of nigh silent darkness punctured by irregular ‘events’, moments – or memories – floating in an otherwise murky and disconnected fug of barely present consciousness.
This release – according to Kirby – was a highlight in The Caretaker’s output, a work that rung up 50,000 (free) downloads and put V/VM back on the critical radar. Since then he’s released outtakes from that project and a vinyl release entitled Deleted Scenes / Forgotten Dreams. But it was his 2008 release Persistent Repetition of Phrases that has attracted the most interest. As much as a Caretaker release can be regarded as ‘accessible’, this latest release would be it. Opening with the bruised and shrouded strains of ‘Lacunar Amnesia’, the album keeps Kirby’s source material just within audible reach so that the mournful, looped melodic refrains lodge themselves in the listener’s consciousness. Like …Anterograde Amnesia, this latest album is conceptually cemented in mental illness. ‘Lacunar Amnesia’ references the complete loss of recollection of one particular moment – or scene – in one’s life, while the track title ‘Past Life Regression’ describes a technique used by hypnotists to conjure in their subjects memories of a past life.
Rather than take a complete track and manipulate it in real time, Kirby says Persistent Repetition of Phrases is built around small melodic moments taken from complete ballroom compositions. “On the last album there’s lots of really short samples [that run for] five or six seconds. Then I take it somewhere else, completely slow it down or make it a lot longer.” Kirby took a similar tact with his ‘Death of Rave’ project. Made available for free through the V/VM Test microsite Vukzid, Kirby manipulated old rave tracks until they resembled a distant emanation from some warehouse many highways and overpasses away, referencing the golden age of UK rave culture that still resonates globally but is buried inaccessible in the past.
While Persistent Repetition of Phrases is Kirby’s most famous work of 2008, he also released an album under the name The Stranger, a monochrome-hued exploration of drowsy electronic textures and stilted, militant beats unyielding to movement or grace. Entitled Bleaklow, and released on V/VM, it’s inspired by an area near his native Stockport. “It’s [based on] these dark hills that surround Manchester.” He says of the location, “I just tried to capture that atmosphere somehow, that damp drizzle. It always rains there, even on sunny days its grey.”
“The name itself [Bleaklow], I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s very bleak up there. The peak district outside of Manchester is about a 30 minute drive out of town. It’s one of the only areas I miss being over here in Berlin, because I don’t miss much about being in England. That area is really nice, it’s quite inspiring.
“For me Bleaklow is a lot stronger than The Caretaker one. It suffers from being on V/VM rather than another label. If it was another label maybe they’d be more reviews. It’s very similar to Caretaker in places but just a little darker.”
It is darker. Unlike The Caretaker, which bears an inherent lightness of touch thanks to the warm, welcoming glow of melancholy – of misplaced nostalgia with no plausible reference point – Bleaklow is unrepentantly captivating; furtive and enervating. This music demands everything of your senses and staunchly refuses to be disposed of into the periphery. ‘Something To Do With Death’ starts the album with an apparitional drone that quickly morphs into a burrowing, cyclical melody, before harsh static and noise presses against the speaker, rising to a monolithic peak. Inside this morass you could identify any number of probably-not-there-sounds. It’s like navigating a dark hall of cobwebs, or trying to find steady ground in darkness thickened with fog.
Fittingly, Bleaklow is essentially the last release for V/VM Test, which shut up shop on the 31st of December, 2008. Forthcoming is a massive 7CD retrospective of the label, which is still in the planning stages. The closure isn’t a death knell for any of Kirby’s current projects however, which will continue being released through other avenues, both independently and through other labels. A new Caretaker album is slated for late 2009/early 2010, but his current project – which will be released under the name Leyland James Kirby, will see the light of day in 2009.
“It’s about life, that track,” Kirby says of the first work to be released under the name, which isn’t publicly available yet but can be found online under the name ‘When We Parted My Heart Wanted To Die’. Like selections from Bleaklow, the track is accompanied by obscured video footage in its online incarnation, and the project is more introspective than most detractors would believe is possible of Kirby. “It’s personal. Sometimes it’s good to get personal, get some more feeling into things.” He says in an offhand fashion. “The people who have seen it had an emotional response to it. The video is an endless walk through Berlin streets, and [the viewer] sees these ghost like figures sometimes that appear and disappear out of view.”
While it’s the end of an era for Kirby, he appears well equipped with ideas to usher in a new one. V/VM Test, afterall, seems to have achieved its purpose. The method of appropriation that V/VM has always ideologically rooted for, the manipulation of existing cultural texts in order to rebirth them in a different light, is not only artistically acceptable now but immensely popular for a new generation native to post-modernist sample wrangling and accessible (and cheap) tools to do so. Even the act of giving music away seems fairly commonplace nowadays.
Kirby is treading a different philosophical path now, and while stylistically it may veer through key elements of popular V/VM tropes, even forthcoming works – not yet put to tape – focus on the loss of an optimistic future, the loss of a time when speculating over the future offered any semblance of excitement or hope.
“I’ve actually been working on an EP,” Kirby says in closing. “You’re going to love the title.” He ruffles briefly through a notebook on the other end of the line before announcing: “Sadly the future is no longer what it was.”
The Stranger’s Bleaklow, as well as the V/VM archives, can be found at www.brainwashed.com/vvm