The Process: The Caretaker


Among a slew of varied and consistently brazen projects (e.g. Leyland Kirby, The Stranger, V/Vm), James Kirby has been releasing music as The Caretaker for some twenty years, sampling obscure big band records from the 1930s and ‘40s and manipulating them so as to conjure the ghosts of old ballrooms and simulate experiences of faltering memory.

An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011), The Caretaker’s most critically lauded work to date, was inspired by studies about “the ability of Alzheimer’s patients to recall songs of their past, and with them recollections of places, people, moods, and sensations.” There’s a warmth and sweetness to the music that gets subtly undermined by Kirby’s editing; Pitchfork called the album “unsettling” for being “the musical equivalent of a permanent smile.” Kirby also used his processing wizardry to transform out-of-copyright Schubert piano recordings for a Caretaker soundtrack to Patience (After Sebald), a 2012 documentary about W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn—itself sprung out of its author’s sense of postwar Europe’s collective amnesia.

Kirby’s current (and possibly final) Caretaker undertaking—an almost irrationally ambitious six-part series called Everywhere at the End of Time, with one LP being released every six months until the project’s completion in March 2019—pushes the concept of exploring “dementia through sound” further still: Kirby has “given the whole project dementia,” meaning each part of the series—becoming increasingly fractured and confused while echoing what has gone before it—is meant to map a particular stage in the progression of Alzheimer’s. By turns tragic, ecstatic, and downright scary, the series is a tour through the deterioration of a subjective consciousness; yet there’s also a broader level on which it functions: it’s an artwork about its own unmaking; an enactment of cultural disintegration; a kind of sonic “Ozymandias.”

Kirby—who is from Manchester, England, but lives in Krakow, Poland—corresponded with me via email right around the release of Stage 4, which came out on his label, History Always Favors the Winners, in April. He was extremely busy, putting the finishing touches on Stage 5 and gearing up to start work on Stage 6, but somehow found time to volubly respond to my questions with an anarchic writing style often devoid of punctuation. Though the transcript was whittled down and doctored slightly for clarity, Kirby’s writing reflected his music: it was sprawling, generous, cryptic, and pulled no punches.

—Landon Bates

THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that you came up with the framework for Everywhere at the End of Time mostly to work on the latter three stages. Why was it necessary to build the first three albums in order to get to the last three?

JAMES KIRBY: Before this series of works I’ve worked on very specific areas of memory. The aim this time was to give myself the biggest challenge yet and in the last three stages to try and create a kind of listenable chaos. The only way to be able to work in uncomfortable areas was to give the whole project dementia by introducing some new elements in the first three stages and then see how these may or may not break down when given specific symptoms. I just found the chance to put sound through symptoms a really exciting but scary prospect. This can only happen here as I have twenty years of works to fall back through.

If you take the first three stages there are subtle but crucial differences between them all, based on mood and the [level of] awareness that a person with the condition would feel. By Stage 4 I realized that the last three stages had to be made from the viewpoint of post-awareness.

BLVR: Does “post-awareness” mean a patient no longer comprehends that she has dementia?

JK: Yeah, once people become unaware there is a problem. Then there is a drift in thought patterns, also reality crumbles. Dreams/Nightmares become a reality, confusion sets in. Of course there might be the odd moment of bliss and escape. It’s hard to comprehend this, as our own reality with healthy minds makes full and complete sense to us. People with dementia find themselves in is their own reality, but it’s one of loops and confusion. I was attracted to working with that as a framework for creation.

BLVR: Do you know John Cage’s “Radio Music,” where performers simultaneously change the channels on a bunch of transistor radios? Stage 4 reminds me of “Radio Music,” but there’s an extra layer of pathos, since the channels being changed are all playing music that’s familiar to the listener from the previous stages and from prior Caretaker releases. It’s a transistor radio scrolling uncontrollably through someone’s musical memory. The first two sides of Stage 4 (a double-album) are almost dizzying to listen to, because the channels are changing so quickly that you don’t have time to orient yourself in any one piece of music.

JK: I know of [“Radio Music”] but am more aware of John Cage’s use of chance, which I employ in this work especially as the series progresses. I’ve tried to make this work seem like there is no hand in there, jump cuts are simply memory switching or attention focusing elsewhere.

I call the latter stages the stages of diminishing returns, as I expect the audience who love a specific Caretaker sound to fall away. They were compiled in strange ways, using some older and new work to capture moods and feelings. I appreciate they will be difficult for some people, but over time they offer small rewards. I’m very happy right now with Stage 5, which has been completed. There is a distinct change with it from Stage 4 and it will be interesting to see if people spot what that is, as it’s not immediate but it’s a crucial symptom. I’m still scared to work on the final stage. It’s a huge challenge, as the weight of the previous five falls all on this now. I have some ideas but no idea how they will translate or if they will work. So it’s another jump into the deep end. There’s an excitement around the fear of failing, which sometimes we need to progress.

BLVR: One fan on Bandcamp commented, “I only hope that he can come out [of Everywhere at the End of Time] without too many wounds.” Is this a misconception, that spending so much time on music so gloomy is bound to mess with your head?

JK: I am very respectful of dementia. It’s tough, it’s harrowing, it’s upsetting equally for the people experiencing it as well as their long-term carers. I don’t approach this work lightly. It’s an artistic interpretation of a very sad and distressing disease, which many of us will have firsthand knowledge of via relatives or friends simply because we are living longer. Doing this work from my point of view is tough as it’s been nonstop. You go through times of pushing yourself to points of illness. It’s better though than coasting in that beige/gray zone of making what is expected.

Stages 4 and 5 are created from well over four-hundred hours of experiments and recordings. I have listened to them for a long time. Whilst trying to not overwork material it’s difficult to be submerged in these worlds for weeks on end, but I have an obligation to all the people who support this work to do my very best and not go through the motions. To go in deep and see what happens.

I had no plan or idea about these stages when I started. The simple thing is to just decompose stages calmly and slowly. It’s a very sad world to be immersed in and I have huge respect for anybody suffering and those having to see the gradual disappearance of self of a loved one. It’s extremely upsetting.

BLVR: Do you worry about charges that you’re aestheticizing mental illness?

JK: I can’t really worry about that. I’m sure some people might level those charges. If I worried about reactions though I’d only stay in a beige/gray zone or probably through fear release nothing. I need the challenge so I set it. Not everyone is going to like it. I get hate mail about it, I get positive mail. For me what is important is people listen and can have extreme reactions. As long as I treat what I do with respect, then all I can hope is this comes across and people can appreciate the work for being what it is.

BLVR: How much does research inform the work?

JK: Well, I have a curiosity regarding dementia, I have no idea why. I read somewhere that people can become fascinated by it as it’s like a slow-motion unravel of a person. I read a lot, I watch a lot, and, like most people you know, some family members have suffered. We lost an uncle last year to the disease who was actually interviewed on one of my old V/Vm records back in 2000. It’s this generation’s health challenge now as we extend the life span possibly beyond our design. In terms of this series, I look at various case studies and then form a picture to see the most common symptoms, as of course it can be so varied.

BLVR: An interesting tension comes from the way, on one hand, you prolong the life of your source material by giving this obscure big band music a new audience, while, on the other hand, you strip source recordings for usable parts, altering and Frankensteining them into something new. So the project is both archival and not. You don’t, for example, attribute songs to their original performers—but for good reason, since you’re staging a mind’s forgetting.

JK: Always I’m just looking for a specific emotional content to convey a feeling. I’ve found some great artists, the actual best one was on a completely non-credited white-label album which was self-pressed. No idea who it is, no way of finding out. I love that.

I used to buy all the records in a now long-gone shop in Stockport called the 78 Record Exchange in the mid-to-late 1990s. I often don’t know what I have used due to the volume of stuff, which is why there is no credit. Plus, with many of the works the change is drastic or the loop so insignificant through the song that it’s not so important. Where it’s obvious the detectives out there have worked out what has been used, so credits do roll round.

BLVR: I’ve read that you pull from a bank of hundreds-if-not-thousands of tracks for each of your albums, that for each project you generate way more music than you could ever release.Why is it important for you to always be producing, even when you know the vast majority of what you’re making will never be heard?

JK: You know I love working with sound. It’s like a boxer, you need to keep in training each day to stay sharp and on top of the game. In terms of making a lot of things, I go against the grain. I’m sick of reading “Limit your tools to keep focus…” I like having everything I can at hand and then knowing what will be best for a situation or work. I love the chaos of that, I love getting new sounds to use in wrong ways, I love seeing what can happen if I do something tools are not designed for.

My work-rate on things other than The Caretaker has dropped through this project due to the obligation I have, but when this final stage is finished in September, rather than taking it easy I aim to make between 700 and 1000 tracks and experiments within the year that follows. Of those maybe five or ten will be amazing, but that will only become apparent after they are evaluated over time. The one thing which is precious always: time. Not money, not success, not clicks or view rates, but time.

Time, thanks to people buying my work, is what I have. I’m aware of it and won’t waste the chance this affords me. I love doing this work, I just have to remove deadlines and playing live at the moment as these are the creation-killers and distractions. It’s the same with promotion. I do very little, as I’d rather work on music. I’m sure other musicians would be shouting louder about this project we’re discussing here, but what for. Who cares? My attitude now is: if people find it, great; if they find value in this and support it, that is the dream; if they never find it, then it is what it is. It’s there to be found but not pushed down people’s throats in this over-the-top kind of way which removes all enthusiasm from something.

BLVR: On your Bandcamp page, Everywhere at the End of Time is framed by an artist statement explaining the concept that you’ve given the Caretaker persona dementia, along with general descriptions of each stage, and memory-related track titles. Yet the packaging of the physical records includes almost no text whatsoever: there are no conceptual liner notes, no track listings; there’s not even the name The Caretaker. The only text to be found on the album jackets, on the spines, is for Ivan Seal’s cover art. Can you speak to the decision to elaborately frame the digital albums while leaving the analog versions unframed?

JK: I think the design ethic is very important. Ivan’s work for the covers is so important to each stage. My name or text there is unimportant. Interviews like this provide glimpses of the process and thought. They may help some people navigate or they may not. Since 2008 I realized the work is the most important thing in what I do now, I’m not important here, the label is not important. In terms of the covers Ivan is the most important and he alone chooses what to put on the spines, the front and back covers, and the inner covers when it has been a gatefold release. He has one-hundred-percent of my trust and I don’t offer any advice on how something should be.

I’m honored he wants to let me use his works. There is a big correlation of our respective works, as he’s often painting objects which he remembers existing which possibly have not existed. His World collides with my World in a great way. Descriptions on the releases may distract from this. They are online for people to find should they wish to search a little deeper.

LUPO’s mastering work is also extremely important. It’s hard to pinpoint what he adds when he masters these records, but he brings out what I call some sparkle there. Nicky too [who provides album-length video accompaniment on] is an important component visually, as it’s another World within the World.

I think we’re trying to not spoil the works so much with overelaborate notes and text. Allowing space for personal interpretation.

BLVR: You’ve said technology is an inspiration for your work, since new developments are constantly feeding into your projects. But Everywhere at the End of Time can also be interpreted as a kind of comment on the capacity for advanced technologies to destroy the cultures they come out of. It’s technology eating itself.

JK: I love what technology affords me. Although some of my work can seem nostalgic, believe me I work in the now. I have no desire to set up a studio with a ton of old modular gear, that game is like a fruit machine: loads of people putting money into an expensive setup with flashing lights, very few of them know how to play to win, so only one or two hit a jackpot. It’s a dead end, people being impressed because somebody has spent a lot of cash on colored wires.

I love digital innovation, I’m passionate about it, I work constantly on my possibilities. I want to expand them daily, I want to ask questions, what if? I want to create errors to see what can happen and to be surprised. I want to try to find some new sound Worlds. Music right now should be so much more risk-taking and progressive based on the tools available. I can’t understand why we are at this impasse. Pop music is completely banal, experimental music is more or less stagnant. Only a handful of musicians seem to truly want to push and surprise.

Maybe it’s attention span and a generational thing. I’m an old dinosaur who never dropped out of the game. Loads of my peers did because it’s hard to hack it, stomach it, and keep going. I’m a Taurus, so like the bull I just stubbornly keep trying to look forward. Still optimistic that music matters like it matters to me. It seems now though promotion companies have taken over, labels that have the cash but risk nothing run the game, endless music events with the same lineups, the same press shot and text being copied and pasted everywhere. All of them friends with each other and happy to push each others’ mediocrity. It’s a complete con job. I feel sorry it’s like this. Corporate brand sponsorship and real garbage portals like Spotify turning it all into an audio Big Mac Happy Meal service. Some Eno with your Zappa and how about an extra large serving of Bowie to wash it down. All streaming at a rock bottom price where small artists lose and are given no chance of making any kind of impact or impression. That is, unless it’s seriously shit music which can be pumped out like some cheap chicken nuggets.

I have hope still but it diminishes each day when I see the next big thing modeling high-end fashion replete with a team behind them pushing every angle they can for clicks. Today blah, blah wears Prada and Chanel and presents their take on techno and class struggle on their sponsored setup whilst playing next weekend at Berghain. It’s just weird over-branding of style. We need a lot of people to pull their socks up for situations to get better and to help interested people see through this bullshit. The motivation of fame sadly mostly outweighs the motivation for the work right now.

BLVR: I watched a couple of YouTube videos of you performing Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” at past shows. This was revealing, because it displayed a sense of humor that the listener of The Caretaker might not expect from you.

JK: A lot of my career is completely misunderstood. I don’t understand some of it and why I do what I do. I don’t make it easy for myself as I am unable to creep to people and can’t stand the bullshitters. I’m extreme like that. I know it’s a game and I know it’s a business, but I’m an honest player, which doesn’t really work.

In terms of my output there’s a whole swathe of work which I removed ten years ago like shedding a skin. Like some distorted-looking music caterpillar turning into this fucked up musical butterfly in order to keep going on to the next stage. Other musicians would be and are clinging onto similar older work as being their glory days. A load of old caterpillars who never mutated and grew.

Live shows always hark back to shows where I’ve thrown myself down stairs or caused some kind of chaos. This is mainly done to change energy in rooms, to put people on some kind of edge so they are more alert to what is going on.

I might try and reevaluate my older work if and when I get the time, but you know I’d rather push forward and do new things. I see echoes of older works of mine kicking around in some current Vaporwave works, but it’s never credited as an influence even though it predates the so called originators. Good luck to the producers making it, it’s a reaction I think to the boredom of being bombarded by mainstream culture. I’d love to write a book from my point of view about it all, setting my own truths out there as I always seem to have to read other people’s interpretations, which sometime hit the mark but often are so wide of the mark. I’ve survived now without compromise through some really tough and changing times for the music industry through the last twenty-five years, always staying independent and working without fear. Like Rocky Balboa always on the ropes but throwing the odd punch back and hoping not to be knocked out completely. Always one punch away from it all being over.

I think people probably can’t add up how I am when they meet me. You might get one impression via the work, or via the shows, or via interviews, but I’m actually very sociable, which you would see if you come to my local bar when I play darts. The biggest problem I have is I’m honest when it comes to music and musicians and speak my truth, and a lot of people don’t like my version of truth based on my own experiences. I’m always optimistic though even in these dire times we are all rolling through. It’s all grist for the creative mill.

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