Leyland Kirby on The Caretaker’s New Project: Six Albums Exploring Dementia

Leyland Kirby

Leyland Kirby. Photo by Matt Wilkinson.

Memories don’t just light the cobwebbed corners of Leyland Kirby’s mind. They’re a driving force in everything he does, from the experimental pop edits of V/Vm to the slo-mo suites of his wildly ambitious triple album Sadly, the Future is No Longer What It Was.

Then there’s The Caretaker, a popular solo project best summed up by the title of its downcast 1999 debut, Selected Memories From the Haunted Ballroom. While parts of it are much noisier than the ambient music he makes today, the roots of his many records are here—lurking deep within disintegrating loops of the lost 78s Kirby has collected over the past two decades.

It’s easy to find parallels between William Basinski’s mesmerizing work and The Caretaker, but while Kirby acknowledges his admiration of the producer, he insists his own compositions “aren’t just loops breaking down. They’re about why they’re breaking down, and how.”

That concept is on full display on the newest Caretaker LP, Everywhere At the End of Time. More than just a mere follow-up to Kirby’s breakthrough album An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, it’s the first volume in a six-part series—priced to move at just £5—in which The Caretaker will document the worsening stages of dementia.

Leyland Kirby

“I didn’t really want to do another [Caretaker record],” explains Kirby, speaking from his Krakow home, “but so many people liked An Empty Bliss. So I thought to myself, ‘What can I do that’s not just An Empty Bliss again?’ The only thing I could do is stages of dementia. The first album is a completely new record, but by the time we get to the third one, it’s going to be the most like An Empty Bliss because it’s the blissful stage where you’re unaware you’ve actually got dementia.

He continues, “The most interesting bit for me is the three stages after that, which will explore complete confusion, where everything starts breaking down. That’s why I kept the digital side of things really cheap—because it’s more about the last three than the first three. It’s a finite series. And where can you go from there? Nowhere really.”

In the following exclusive feature, we discuss how Kirby got here in the first place, where he’s headed next, and why he only drinks on Thursdays.

How does it feel now that you have to make the six records you’ve promised everyone?

It’s hard work. And if you look at it from a Bandcamp point of view, it’s a very low entry point, cash wise, to get all six. Which I was keen to do; it’s nice to force people on a journey.

Do you have a rough sketch of how the songs are going to deteriorate over time?

I think I’m six months ahead of everything. The second one is being finished this week, and then I’ll start the third one. You never know what technology might come out which might help in the next couple years, too. It’s insane how fast things move these days.

Are you trying to limit yourself, technology wise?

I like endless choice the most. A good example is if I want to make a piano-based track, I have around five or six hundred different pianos I can use. It’s quite interesting because you make the choices really fast, often without thinking.

Have you built up tons of sample banks over the years?

Yeah. Caretaker wise, it’s more about building up source material and learning what works. I go through thousands of tracks to find loops sometimes. It’s strange, because some days you’ll find five or six parts, and another day it’s just awful. You’re walking through the forest, and have no clue at all. It’s really mood dependent.

Is the Caretaker stuff purely sample-based?

It’s mainly sample-based—applying different techniques to things. I’m looking for a very specific emotion. It’s great now, because there’s so much stuff available on the internet. But back in the day, I had to go to old 78 shops, like this one in Stockport. I’d chat to the two old guys who ran it every week. They couldn’t believe I was into the stuff. Nobody was buying this music. They still aren’t, really. There’s zero demand. Which is really a shame, because a lot of it’s amazing.

What was your first exposure to ballroom music?

[The BBC series] Pennies From Heaven was a big one. The ballroom scene in The Shining is amazing as well, where this music appears from nowhere. Many, many years ago, in the late ’90s, it was impossible to find out what Kubrick used. He bought the rights to it, and it wasn’t available on any compilations.

Are we supposed to think just the new record has dementia, or that the whole Caretaker project has from the very beginning?

The whole project from the beginning. It forces me to think about what I remember from the past 20 years as well. Each stage of this project is limited by symptoms, and how they translate into songs.

Are you ever worried about losing your own memory?

Dementia is really a modern-day problem, isn’t it? Because we’re all living longer. From the reading I’ve done, [the effects of dementia] depend what time frame you drop back into, as well. A lot of people drop back into their childhood. Maybe they didn’t have a good adolescence, and then that’s all they’re remembering. It’s this endless loop of agony. I don’t think you can worry about these things on a personal level. If you get it, you get it. Unless you’re genetically predisposed to it, it can be quite random.

So exploring these themes over the years is more of a fascination than a fear?

I think so. I’d love to be able to get into this from a professional angle of researching the brain, because they’re still trying to map it out and make sense of it. It’s another one of life’s great mysteries—how the brain falls apart, and in what order.

And now we’ve got all these different things overloading our brain online.

Yeah, maybe that’ll have long-term effects on everybody. We don’t know yet. It’s like passwords; you have a million of them, and it’s like ‘What the hell is going on? I’ll just get a password manager to take away the stress.’ It’s endless, isn’t it? Especially if you cover music; it’s great because anybody can do anything these days, but it’s harder and harder to get heard through the noise.

But you can also reach people directly now more than ever before.

It’s interesting, because I started the [History Always Favours the Winners] label before the internet took hold, so I’ve seen it from both sides. I did something for the Wire about this—about digital management. We need to delete things to keep things fresh. Because it’s pretty hard, isn’t it, to come across a new artist and they have 40 albums out?

Do you have a lot of unreleased music you simply don’t put out there?

Oh yeah. Over the past three years, I’ve made about 2,000 tracks, not including Caretaker stuff. Piano stuff, electronic stuff, experiments—all kinds of things will never come out. My problem these days is compiling. It’s like a puzzle; if you change one thing, the rest of it doesn’t make any sense. I’m surviving only by record sales. I haven’t played live the last three or four years, but I’m able to keep moving, which is great.

Leyland Kirby

Did working on your Death of Rave album help you come to any realizations about your past?

That was basically a comment on what I was seeing in Berlin at the time. I moved from Manchester to Berlin and was lucky enough to see [rave] culture at its height when I was 16 years old. Then of course, the epicenter moved to Berlin and you’ve got stuff like Berghain, where everyone wants to get in, but can’t get past the bouncer. And once you get in, the space is absolutely incredible, but the music in the mid-2000s wasn’t anything special. I think there was a lack of energy there.

So that was basically a comment on that—the death of rave. Because you didn’t really care about who the DJ was at the original raves and parties. It was about the energy. When you get new things now, they aren’t given the time to grow. Everything gets trampled immediately. That period of initial rave was a secret for a lot of people. It was truly, I guess, what you’d call ‘underground’ back in the day. Now everything is just released or unreleased, and you can make sense of it or not make sense of it, really.

How did you manage to stay so productive in Berlin—a city full of so many distractions?

The problem with Berlin is everyone wants to visit you. Everyone, including people you hadn’t seen for years. They all want to party; they want to all go drinking. It’s difficult. If I listen to what I’m making now, it’s so much more focused, so much better. Not only has technology improved, but I’ve also got more time, because not many people visit me in Krakow. It’s great; I can just get on with it. It’s always nice to have visitors, but Berlin was getting stupid. I was having visitors every single night, for weeks on end. It was great times and memories, but sometimes you have to step back for a second.

You made such beautiful music out of that chaos, though, like the Sadly series.

That Sadly series is insane because all of my friends at that time said, ‘When the hell did you make this? You were out with us all the time.’ I’d just disappear, now and then, for one or two days and record. If I listen back to that, I’ll always remember those days—the hangovers, the girls, the running around, just absolutely crazy, completely different from the way it is now.

Did you hit a breaking point where you simply had to move away from Germany?

I guess you just fall into patterns, don’t you? I was going out a lot and probably drinking a bit too much, which isn’t a huge problem. I do that from time to time, but you’ve gotta say to yourself, ‘Right, I’ve gotta get some work done.’ It was more about that. I talked about moving to Krakow about a year before I did. It seemed like a good location to switch to from Berlin, because it’s similar but smaller. And it’s not got the same sensation level. It’s a lot quieter.

Was We Drink to Forget the Storm made around the time of your move?

No, the transition point was the Stranger album. When I moved here, that was what I worked on for the first four or five months. It was a really harsh winter—like minus 30 degrees at the end of March, or something ridiculous. The focus is better on that album; when you’re not out in the bars every night, you’re just working. Now I only go out once a week, so it’s manageable.

Do you have a certain day of the week that’s yours?

Thursday night. Always Thursday night. And I avoid the weekends when I can.

Why Thursday?

There’s a good attitude then, because you’re coming up on the weekend.

Is the Stranger project something you’re still working on?

Yeah, I need to start working on something for Modern Love next year. I’ve got some ideas for that already. I’ll pull out some angles from the 2,000 tracks I mentioned before. That’s the plan. I should do some shows with them as well, because they’ve got what? Andy Stott, Demdike Stare… Maybe next year I’ll start doing some shows. It’s been a while.

Leyland Kirby, live
Leyland Kirby, masks

Why the hesitation to perform?

It takes a lot, mentally, to do it. With the shows I was doing before, I’d go on stage and just start drinking whiskey. It’s difficult on the body, all that. I was trying to reflect what was going on in my life at the time, which was a mess. The visuals were messy, and I was a bit messy. Whereas now… I don’t know. It’s a strange one, playing live. I’d like to do three or four very special things rather than get on that treadmill a lot of people seem to be on. You see them put an album out and then they’re everywhere for like six months. I have no idea how they do that, because it does get to you in the end. I miss being in here, getting stuff done.

You used to have some pretty crazy performances back in the day right?

Oh yeah, especially with the old V/Vm ones, where I’d throw myself around stages. I dislocated my kneecap in Belgium once, and I had to bang it back in to carry on with the show. My knee went black for about two months after that. Honestly, it’s great memories—a lot of fun, but it feels like I’m avoiding work.

Where do you think you got your work ethic from?

Probably my parents. I saw my dad go to work every day for 30 years. When I left school, I worked six or seven years, just doing various jobs and getting up every day. Even creating is a job. I know it sounds ideal to people, but it’s hard work every day. There are days where you don’t want to do it. And if you don’t do it for a while, you lose it, don’t you? You gotta stay sharp and keep going. I’m lucky, because my big inspiration is technology. I’m always excited by what’s coming, what’s new. I love it. It’s always great energy. Plus, I’m lucky, because I’m not pigeonholed into doing one thing. I can just explore any direction I want.

What’s the first piece of technology that really excited you?

The first thing I got was an Amiga [computer] when I was 16 or 17. That really opened my eyes, because you could play a sample on it and see it on the screen. It was like a mountain range. Before that, you couldn’t see anything. The switch to PC was the next one. I remember a friend had the first version of Sound Forge and I thought, ‘Wow, you can chop WAVs up.’ Before that, it was DAT players or MiniDiscs or chopped tape itself—a huge investment. So many mistakes are made while building a studio. You’re always chasing something. You think getting this one piece of equipment will change everything and it doesn’t change anything. You put this delay unit on and it’s rubbish—just horrible. I remember those days fondly.

In other words, technology is nothing without ideas.

I think so. I think you still need the ideas, and the drive to come up with things. I like that the new Caretaker stuff is a journey—that it’ll actually take three years, and that I can take people down a darker pathway than where I initially started.

Do you feel like the Caretaker project has become more personal over time?

That’s a difficult question. The Caretaker stuff is more remote, but then again, it’s more personal because I’m listening for very specific samples.

Leyland Kirby

Leyland Kirby. Photo by Matt Wilkinson.

How many 78s do you own?

The whole collection is back in England, at my parents’ place. I’m not sure how many there are, but it’s quite extensive. I haven’t seen it in a few years. I should probably check it out.

You must have sampled a ton of stuff before you dropped those records off.

Whenever I go back, I spend six or seven solid days just recording. The last time, I probably recorded two or three hundred records. I spent a lot of time digging stuff out. A lot of the Caretaker is on YouTube now as well. It’s got 20 or 25 views, though; it’s completely forgotten music, even though there’s some amazing stuff.

Is that part of the appeal for you—that this music is about as underground as it gets?

When I made An Empty Bliss, I was in New York with the Demdike Stare guys, and Sean [Canty] dragged me to a record store in Brooklyn. All of the records were really expensive, but then I came across this whole section of ballroom stuff. And everything in it was like 50 cents. The girl was really happy to see me come to the counter with this big pile of records that cost about 10 dollars or so. The whole Empty Bliss record came from that.

What’s the appeal of these records anyway?

It’s ghost-like, isn’t it? That period between the ‘30s and ‘40s is between wars. And a lot of people had went to wars and never come back so there was a lot of uncertainty. It’s about ghosts, loss, and all these incredible lyrics. The weight of these tracks is incredible sometimes. Like one of the main guys I’ve sampled over the years, Al Bowlly, died in the war because a bomb landed on the house he was in. They say he would have been bigger than Bing Crosby, that he had a better voice. It’s very sad.

Andrew Parks

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