That's life in Berlin for Kirby. One month he'll be out at the bars every night until dawn. The next month, he'll be locked away in the studio, processing audio to within an inch of its life, extracting every single bit of pathos he can find. Last year, the result was one of the most beautiful works of his career, the three CD Sadly, the Future Is No Longer What It Was, a collection of unsettling yet languorous experimental compositions that mined the same emotional territory as The Caretaker, perhaps the most celebrated of his many aliases.
Work under The Caretaker name usually sees Kirby reworking old ballroom 78s, exploiting their nostalgic characteristics. Begun in 1999, the project only really came to prominence when Kirby closed his V/Vm Test label in 2008 to focus solely on his more contemplative work. Since then, his name has become a hot topic among the theoretical music journalist set. But, as I found out late last week in Berlin, James Leyland Kirby often has more immediate concerns on his mind.
In our e-mails earlier this week to set up this interview, you said that you're living an "ambient rock & roll life" at the moment. Are you going out much to clubs here in Berlin?
No, clubs not so much. Always bars. I'm very lucky, because in a lot of the bars I'm getting free drinks.
Why are you getting so many free drinks?
I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm really nice when I'm going into bars? There are certain ways that I'm not going to go into that you can get free drinks. Or very, very big drinks.
You were booked in Madrid recently as The Caretaker and under your own name. What does a show like that look like?
There's not much to look at that I'm doing, but there are visuals.
That's quite a bit different from the V/Vm shows that you once did.
Of course. That was throwing myself around the stage and breaking and dislocating knees.
Is it quite nice to be taking a break from that sort of thing?
I did a V/Vm show in Madrid. (We ended up staying longer there because of the volcano.) It was the first time I had done one in eight years with Andy [McGregor]. It was a lot of fun.
Did it come back quite easily?
Well, the V/Vm show was just atrocious. Abysmal. The people were there were just in shock. Half of them left, and half of them stayed. Some people enjoyed it for a while, then it got a bit too much for them and they left. Then others came in. It was a lot of fun to do, but the problem is that it's very physical to do. At one point, I was walking around the stage with a microphone and I just fell off the stage. I just didn't see the end of it. I fell into some chairs, ripped the trousers I was wearing. I couldn't walk for about five minutes.
All those years, V/Vm was about using a laptop but throwing ourselves around. It was quite visual. During this time, everyone that was using a laptop was very studious with no visuals. Now it seems like everyone is obsessed with these control surfaces; you have to be seen doing something. I've now gone back to sitting behind the laptop, and being very calm, very cool.
You've done it backwards.
For many years, I was giving music away, so much music away. And now I don't really give anything away. I give the odd track away, but now everyone is giving it away. It's like I'm the opposite all the time.
Why are you not giving away music anymore?
I think there's enough out there that I've given away. Now I'm just trying to refine what I'm doing a bit more. In the past, I've done stuff and just thrown it out there, like the 365 project, but in the end it was too big. No one really noticed it.
Do you worry about that? You seem to specialize in big projects. The 365 thing, The Caretaker's Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia was six discs.
No. The only negativity that I saw, for example, about the last Caretaker album was that it was too long, too much. So I started asking people, "OK, so it's too long. What tracks would you take out?" And it was a different response from everyone.
Are you throwing a lot of stuff away?
I have a lot of tracks. I've not worked at full speed this year, but I've probably made about 300 tracks all as good as the last album. I really don't feel like I've been working properly yet because I went to Spain for a week and didn't get back until a month later.
A lot of the new stuff is about trying to capture this beautiful moment. This one second where everything is unbelievable. Taking a snapshot of this one second. It's about this sometimes. Living in the moment. In the past, I've always been guilty of thinking that things would be better in six months. Right now, though, I'm just in the moment.
Is that a recent change for you?
No. That's been the last couple of years.
So you'd say that the last album was about living in the moment?
I think so. The funny thing about that album was that people would say, "Oh, it's quite dark. It's very emotional, you must be quite serious." But I had an unbelievable time as I was making that album. Friends of mine who saw me out all the time, just going crazy with all these girls, drinking, when I gave them the discs, they were like, "When the hell did you make this?"
But I'm not an academic."
Were you quite a sadsack when you were making the V/Vm stuff? Is it always opposites for you?
I don't think so. I've kind of been the same all along. The V/Vm stuff was about the rebelliousness of youth. V/Vm upset quite a few people. It rubbed people the wrong way, and sometimes did that to people who didn't deserve to be rubbed the wrong way.
Who are you thinking of?
People would support the label, and maybe write articles about the label. And then I'd do something to annoy them. They'd be saying, "This music is so hard, it's so this." And then I'd put something out stupid, moldy old dough on a 7-inch single and upset everyone. They'd be like, "It's too much, we can't even write about this, he's just going to do something completely different immediately afterward."
That was the point, though. A lot of what V/Vm did is normal now. You go on YouTube now, and you see people remixing hits. Everyone's doing it now. The V/Vm twist was that it was to make everything sound horrible, whereas everyone else tries to make things sound good.
You talk about writers not getting it. The thing that seems underrated about the V/Vm catalogue is that it was always that varied. Things often fell through the cracks because few people could keep up.
It's funny, I have friends in America who make traditional noise music using guitars, feedback, stuff like this, will tell me that Stigma, an album I made in 2004, was one of the best noise albums they've heard. But it didn't sell very well at all, people just didn't hear it at the time. That's fine, though, the album is there.
Why do you think people have picked up on The Caretaker recently?
I have no idea, to be honest. Probably because it [2008's Persistent Repetition of Phrases] wasn't released on V/Vm. The six CD box set did quite well because it was a download at first. We had about 30,000 downloads in the first month. I was quite surprised. One day, I had absolutely no cash whatsoever so I thought that perhaps people might want to have it as a physical object, six CDs. I got enough orders within three days to pay for the pressing.
Berlin makes it easier, yes. I'm quite lucky, as Ivan lives in Berlin. He is from Manchester as well, and he knows this Caretaker project quite well. There's minimal text now on the covers, no text actually. It just doesn't need it. In the past, it would need it because it would go into a record shop and people would see it, and say, "What's this?" Now, people online know what it is so you don't need this text cluttering it up anymore.
Why did you end up moving to Berlin?
Because England is horrible. It's depressing and paranoid. I think the biggest problem with England is that it looks to America instead of to Europe. I love where I'm from, Manchester, but I also hate the city. It's very, very small. I was going to move to Berlin about five years before I came. I had the flat organized and it fell through at the last minute, something wasn't quite right.
Later, I was staying with some people in Berlin, and they had a place in their flat. I was seeing a Swedish girl at the time in Manchester, and I said to her, "Let's go, let's move to Berlin." Within a month, we moved.
What do you have coming up release-wise?
There will be one album out later this year. I've already started working on it, but it's a long way from being finished. I know the cover image, and what it relates to. It's all about capturing this one moment. Sometimes you can be in this great situation and not realize it until afterwards. It's very important. I get a lot from this.
The visuals for shows under my own name are similar. It's very personal. It's about capturing moments from the past year. The streets of Berlin. It's like a dream of what the reality was. For Mutek, which is coming up, it's billed as a Caretaker show. But right now I can't play one without the other. They're the same thing except The Caretaker is this more nostalgic thing.
Do you think that what you release under your name isn't nostalgic?
It's definitely nostalgic for something, but it's not the same nostalgia.
What is the nostalgia for?
Lost moments, chances. I mean, the title for the last album was about the future not being what it was. This is quite true. We're in 2010. Quite symbolic years, these years. We were told it would be like this by this year, but it's the same more-or-less as it was in the '80s. The only thing that's gotten better is communication and computing. Everything else has gone a bit backwards. I want to see you with a jetpack, Todd, flying down Frankfurter Allee.
Do you think people intellectualize your work too much?
I don't know. Maybe. This field of work is quite intellectual. But I'm not an academic. I'm not really interested. I don't have very much to say to the musicians that I meet because we come from different worlds a lot of the time. Both of my parents are working class, and I escaped this somehow. They were somehow able to provide a middle class upbringing for me. I'm quite lucky to be in this situation. I don't think anyone in my family can believe what I'm doing. It's very far removed from what they think music is.
Have they visited you in Berlin?
No. Only my parents have visited me here. For English people that haven't been here, they're always thinking back to the War. They seem to think it's still bombed or they think it's this austere, gray city. When they come, they're quite surprised.
The summer is quite beautiful.
Even the winter. I'm one of those strange people that prefer the winter over the summer. And this winter was great, because it was so harsh. It's June and July that I don't like so much in Berlin. It's just a bit much. I can't take this park scene. I like to be in bars. Everyone's sitting in parks with beers. It's not a good style for me. I'm not a beer man anymore. I can't drink beer.
It's all hard liquor?
It's all top shelf. Whiskeys with no ice. Saffron gin tonic is the drink of choice this summer. With a slice of orange. That's how gentlemen take the drink.