Under The Caretaker moniker, Berlin-based British sound artist James Leyland Kirby has taken on the heady (no pun intended) subject of memory and mental illness. His 2005 effort Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia— originally released as a downloadable collection of 72 free mp3s– was a journey into the unimaginable confusion of short-term memory disintegration. While Kirby says his primary inspiration was the ballroom scene in Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining, his premise more closely parallels modern cult psychological thrillers like Memento. On his latest release, the recently Zoned In An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Kirby invites us into the mind of someone struggling to recall images from their past— aural ones, incarnated in samples and shards of old jazz 78s. An Empty Bliss… is a powerful piece of music that demands full attention– not an ambient record for background play.
Kirby and I spoke over the phone and engaged in some light, ice-breaking small talk on our perceptions of elapsed time, the chaos of the modern world, and sociologist Alvin Toffler‘s seminal 1970 tome Future Shock–you know, the usual. He also revealed that he’s finished a score for a new film by Grant Gee, director of the claustrophobic Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy.
AZ: Your releases as The Caretaker take on the concept of memory and how it becomes warped by age or disease. How did you become so intrigued by the subject?
James: I guess it’s how you look back at things when you’re older and everything has changed. Our own memories from when we were younger all become something different. That’s what I try to capture. The whole project came about by watching the breakdown of Jack Torrance in The Shining. That was the big influence in the beginning, but you can’t do the same release over and over again, so I’ve looked at different ways to carry on this concept while using old records to represent memory.
AZ: For An Empty Bliss…, did you look at other films or art that dealt with this subject?
James: I’m reading a lot of articles about mental problems people go through, like how some stroke patients get stuck in a sort of limbo. I think [Persistent Repetition Of Phrases] dealt with that idea more; even the song titles referred to the phenomenon of mental breakdown, and of course, how people get when they get older naturally.
AZ: Without getting too personal, have you had any family or friends that have succumbed to something like Alzheimer’s?
James: Not really anyone close. But in the family, there’s always stories you hear about people when they get older– how you start seeing things that aren’t there, like dead relatives. The brain is very strange, because that is their reality, but for everyone who doesn’t have the same condition, it’s notthe reality.
AZ: Reality is relative.
James: Of course. And it can change in an instant. You can take a bang on the head and your world is different.
AZ: Are you allowed to disclose where you get source materials?
James: I bought everything I used when I was in Brooklyn last year. Every record [in this one store] was really expensive, but they had this whole section of old ballroom records for very cheap. It was like Christmas: I had this huge stack of records I bought for like $10. When I got back to Berlin, I had this blank canvas. I hadn’t planned to do another Caretaker album since I have something else coming out at the end of the year– a film soundtrack [I did] for Patience (After Sebald), by Grant Gee. It’s a beautiful film about the writer W.G. Sebald and [Rings of Saturn,] his book about memory. He got in touch with me a few years ago to score the film, and it was perfect. He sent me some source material to rework, and in the film you don’t really notice the music, but it accompanies well. It’s also a sample-based work.
AZ: Is it fair to describe your approach as library music?
James: It could be seen that way. I see it more as capturing old memories and these old loops that go around in people’s heads, and you don’t know whose memories they are.
AZ: It reminds me a lot, especially when the samples fade in and out, of [William] Besinski’s Disintegration Loops.
James: It’s such a great work; it’s beautiful. I think I’m more into creating a [singular] mood than in thinking [about] other music, though. A lot of these tracks are snatches of ideas I have, and [that] I put together to create a soundscape.
AZ: What appeals to you most about electronic music?
James: It always represented the future, for my generation. At some point it became more commercial, but it used to be very experimental and otherworldly. That’s what I try to capture; I look back at this sense of wonder that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
AZ: What is your earliest memory of music?
James: It’s like anyone really: being really young at parties and hearing fantastic pop music. I always find it fascinating when you read interviews with people and they’re like, “I love this kind of out-there artist or avant-garde composer or this crazy electronic stuff,” whereas for me, it’s pop music. My first significant memory is being at a party with my parents and hearing “Brown Girl in the Ring” by Boney M, the classic dance song. It sounds like a nightmare situation [laughs], but I loved it. And with pop music, I’ve been very lucky, living in Manchester when I did 15 years back and being around the acid and techno music of the time. It was so futuristic.
AZ: Yeah I always think it’s interesting to talk to artists who listen to music that is vastly different from what they make. When you don’t have that separation, you inadvertently borrow more ideas than you wanted to, rather than incorporate new sounds from outside sources.
James: Of course. It’s very important to listen to different things all the time because you never know what’s gonna be important down the line. I look for energy. Even in this very quiet music [I make], I try to create this energy that you don’t see much in music today. There’s not as much energy or innovation or artists trying new things, even though at the end of the day, we have more tools to make many different things.
AZ: What do you mean by energy?
James: I guess it’s a certain… the way you listen to something that’s different and you feed off an energy from it. It doesn’t have to be musical energy, in the sense it has to be fast or harsh– it’s just a feeling. You can listen to something and it energizes you in this weird way.
AZ: So music today is more stale?
James: Yes, I think so. Maybe it has to do with people not wanting to work as hard, possibly because of the instant gratification of uploading everything you do. There’s an instant feedback. In the past, people crafted more before they released something. People should be more austere in what they put out there. I released a lot of things under different names in the past, so I’m a bit guilty, but I feel different now and I take a lot more time making things. Maybe people feel like they don’t have the time anymore because, even though we have all these tools to make time for us, it seems we have less and less time. Time is really quick.
AZ: Right, and it reminds me of some things I read about attention spans, especially in people of my generation. As our attention becomes shorter, we spend less and less time taking things in, which affects memory. You don’t remember things as clearly, and everything blurs together, which makes it feel like time is speeding up.
James: Of course, and I guess memory in the end will just be on a device if everyone keeps living this way. It’s gonna be on a hard drive and you’ll have to access that to remember things. It’s totally true what you said. It’ll be interesting to see where it all goes, but ultimately I don’t know if it’s good or bad.