Some artists are in it for the long haul. And James Leyland Kirby – the Artist Formerly Known as V/Vm – is one of them.
Kirby was part of the original 90’s Brit laptop brat-pack that included DJ Speedranch and Jansky Noise. His copyright-baiting AudioMulch remixes were defiantly in-yer-face and deliberately at odds with the rest of the Eng.Electronica brigade, annoying Arts Council funders and past-it Techno DJs and Wire readers in equal measures. Releases on V/Vm Test Records were abrasive, shrill and granular-sounding, shot through with a playful but venomously surreal sense of humour. Unfortunately, the pig-masks, the Chris De Burgh mash-ups and the Falco tribute records didn’t exactly endear him to menopausal male critics. We’re a funny bunch, us Brits: it was okay in the late-90s to like laptop and noise artists from San Francisco, but not Stockport.
Britain had a cocaine hangover and had fallen out of love with New Labour; the last thing that anyone wanted to hear was V/Vm sampling pigs and filtering the fuck out of faded 80’s pop fodder. The critics dismissed it as young-turk schlock-tactics, but Kirby continued ploughing his own furrow, linking up with European noise-technicians like Mego boss Peter Rehberg and hosting an impressive archive of lost noise gems by other maverick artists. In retrospect, his early releases now seem underrated: you can hear him playing around with ideas, forms and concepts – reaching out towards something that’s buzzing around in the back of his head, even though he’s not entirely sure what it is.
Threats of litigation forced Kirby to modify his strategy. His love of cheesy late 80s Belgian New Beat resulted in a series of pitch-perfect zombie-porn beats that re-contextualised the genre for the internet generation. 2006 was spent working on the V/Vm 365 Project – a musical ‘diary’ in which he created and uploaded at least one new piece of freely-distributed music every day for a year. The result is a colossal audio-dump of genre flashbacks and non-aligned soundscapes – some with beats, some without. V/Vm 365 is a bold, radical and exhausting project, one that seems to have allowed Kirby to musically free-associate – to focus on and develop the themes that personally interest him.
Although the last decade has often been a frustrating period for him, it has enabled Kirby to float free of the electronic music midstream. He’s no longer anchored by any particular genre or short-term musical fad, which in turn has freed him from critical expectation. Recent releases as The Caretaker – particularly the remarkable 6CD box-set Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia [download here] – have seen him playing around with the idea of time, place and memory, using subtractive filtering and audio-warpage to echo the sense of dislocation and temporal displacement induced by erosive neurological disorders such as Alzheimers.
Further instalments seemed to develop these ideas further, resulting in music that ebbed and flowed like a dark, oily liquid – the audio equivalent of a lava-lamp – and which seemed to mimic thought-patterns or the neurological processes themselves. Slow tidal surges of sound are interspersed with sudden bursts of processed audio that resemble old memories briefly resurfacing in the frontal lobe. Now, as we look back and reassess his back-catalogue, it becomes increasingly obvious that his more recent work is basically an extrapolation of the late 90’s releases. It is now possible to see how Kirby’s fascination with his own memories of early 80s chart-cheese – combined with a wilful desire to eradicate or deface them, to twist them into new conceptual shapes – has since expanded out into a broader, more refined artistic palette that includes neurology, forgotten 30’s crooners and his own growing sense of mortality.
If the Anterograde sessions used Kubrick’s The Shining as their conceptual kick-off point, then the Death of Rave series occupies another sort of haunted ballroom. Kirby wiped rave music of its musical signifiers to create something that sounded hollowed-out and spectral, a sort of MDMA-depleted snapshot of a 1990 Leeds warehouse party. And, somewhere along the way, he managed to make ambient music sound cool again.
Suddenly, the critics were starting to sit up and take notice. Meanwhile, Kirby dusted off his old The Stranger persona to front the Bleaklow set, a beautifully stark series of solemn drone compositions inspired by the Yorkshire moors – meditations on wind-blasted crags and moss-covered standing-stones. His subsequent relocation to Berlin, however, offered him the chance to explore a new set of urban musical possibilities, but one that sat outside the hipster allure of minimal techno.
Late last year a haunting 15-minute video arrived in my inbox, entitled When We Parted My Heart Wanted To Die by James Leyland Kirby – the name suggesting that old personas were being shed and a new creative phase was beginning. The music was gentle and melancholic, combining a hesitant-sounding piano étude with ambient street-noise and synthesised string-pads. Kirby seemed to be referencing the 19th century German Romanticists as much as classic late 70s proto-ambient – you can hear vague echoes of Eno’s Before and After Science here, as well as a sort of urban retwist of On Land where frog and cricketsong are replaced by car-horns and the vague swssssh of passing vehicles.
The accompanying video is simple, but beautifully effective – a perfect counterpoint to the music, in fact. The viewer/listener walks through an endless double- and triple-exposed montage of bleached-out Berlin street-scenes. The effect is uncanny, almost dream-like – it’s as if you are walking the same streets over and over again on auto-pilot, your mind erased of conscious thought. The images and the music seem to combine, suggesting that different moments in time can easily co-exist within our minds – that our memories of specific times and places are capable of overlapping and replaying concurrently: an effect that is as startling as it is semi-soporific.
It is a potent idea that – denied the propulsive fuel of conscious intent – a human being is little more than a complex aggregate of accumulated memories, a living multi-track tape-recorder. Taken in this context, Kirby’s latest work comes perilously close to clutching hold of some universal truth. In attempting to explore the contours of an individual’s memories and emotional landscape perhaps he has also accidentally begun to map out the shape of the human soul.
More audio-files arrived and – like When We Parted… – they offered a blurred snapshot of a restless musician in transit. ‘When Did Our Dreams and Futures Drift So far Apart’ is an eerie electronic nocturne, a 2am Ballardian drift through deserted back-streets and abandoned business-parks.
‘The Sound of Music Vanishing’ is dense and creamy-sounding – vague shapes and impossibly elongated bjects seem to accelerate past the listener, like the after-images of a series of mile-long high-speed trains watched from the concourse of some futuristic departure terminal. It reminds me of Ballard’s nightmarish SF story The Concentration City, wherein a sleep-deprived passenger travels for 24 hours on a train journey through a never-ending urban sprawl. Paradoxically, the music is veiled in crackle and distressed vinyl hiss as if it is not a vision of the future, but some recently rediscovered audio-artefact that is actually 40 or 50 years old.
‘The Sound of Music Vanishing’ seems to re-engage with the idea of Modernism, hinting that the concept of futurosity in music might not have died with Acid House or Jungle. Perhaps we can finally start embracing some form of Futurism again – but our visions of The Future and The Past are now culturally intertwined on so many levels that it might not turn out quite the way we expect it.
With a recent website make-over (now aptly renamed “History Always Favours The Winners”) and a new album, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was, on the horizon, the future certainly seems to be brightening for James Leyland Kirby.
Tell us a bit about Sadly, The Future is No Longer What it Used to Be. I’m also curious about the idea hinted at in the video of losing yourself/finding yourself by walking…
JLK: “A lot of work has gone into the new release. It’s the beginning of a new phase of work now – something a lot more personal than before, more delicate and emotional. V/Vm had to finish really – that project had run its course – it hadn’t lost its energy, but it was a project born of its time in the mid-90’s. Things have changed now and we can offer a lot more…of course, V/Vm always offered a lot in terms of free digital media and that won’t change now either. It was a good time for me to regroup and set up a new platform and work out what can be offered in terms of traditional formats (for music and video) and where I can go from here to push things forward.
“Not so many people have heard the new output, but those who have been exposed to it have all had very positive and very emotional responses to it (so maybe I should be worried!), but for me it’s about a period of time passing between one phase and another. Transient, but fixed too, in a way. From a time where you’re not fully in control, but you’re still in charge of things.
“It was also born from a time of personal change…it became part of my own rebuilding process. Pacing the streets, working things out alone. Walking is an integral part in this release, especially on those days when you’re not really there, but still you appear to be to others. Weirdly, on those days people don’t look you in the eye as you walk, so you become kind of invisible…but when I felt more together, then the girls were all smiling at me on the streets. It’s strange how a state of mind can also be visible to people out there. It’s from a time where I was just lost in my own thoughts, memories and future ambitions, looking for new directions and pathways to open up.
“The video I made last year sums up that kind of walk as you can kind of see those ghostlike figures out there, but you can’t quite make things out. The day the video was shot was strange; it was around Christmas and the city was very quiet, almost like a ghost town. Only a few people were around, probably mainly lost people too. Responses to that video were amazing, it’s on YouTube now as an edit [see above], but people really need to see the full fifteen minutes to get the full impact of what is going on and what it’s about. People tell me it’s very Eno-esque, but it’s kind of lazy to say anything which has a certain kind of ambience is related to Brian Eno…For me it’s just more personal than copying a formula, but of course I would rather people say it reminds them of Eno, than, say, Black Lace [laughs].
“If anything though, with the new release I’m keen to make ambient cool again as well. You know…move it away from the chill-out bullshit which surrounded it after the late 90’s and those fucking awful Ibiza chill-out “take an overdose” kind of releases. Even though it can be used as a background, it’s good to make ambient music which demands to be in your foreground too, so it works on both levels.
“Interestingly, it sits somewhere between the work I do as The Caretaker and The Stranger…it’s in the middle ground between them both somehow, which is why I used my own name for it, as it’s not appropriate for either of those projects. Tracks are a lot longer and are given more time to unwind – some are so long that you kind of forget they are on, which can be a good thing sometimes.”
Talking of memories and so forth…I was interested in your own earliest memories of music. Are there any early memories of hearing sounds, music, etc that you think may have stayed with you in some way or percolated down though the years…
JLK: “One thing I distinctly remember is being at my grandparents’ place in the early 80s and whenever I used to go there I would just sit with headphones on going up and down the wavebands on their old stereo, finding all these weird foreign radio stations – just enjoying the static between and then the odd voice would fight through that. I guess that kind of stays with you and maybe somewhere down the line this comes out in some of the work.
“Apart from that, I don’t remember too many specific musical moments when I was a child. I tend to remember television more and have been exploring a lot of old series which I used to watch when I was younger. It turns out that a lot of the things I remember often have very strange soundtracks, mainly electronic. For example the Look and Read series – which was pumped out to all British school kids in the 70s and 80s – particularly ‘The Boy from Space’ section. If you watch that again now you could be listening to a Ghost Box release. The Ghost Box guys have totally nailed that sound.”
“You tend to find you often unlock memories the older you get, when you are exposed to older audio. I was listening to ‘Maid of Orleans’ the other day by O.M.D. and when the synth kicked in I was straight back to ’82 or ’83. Pop music is, of course, probably the biggest influence – too many musicians are very elitist when it comes to their influences – you know, that need to look cool – so pop is dismissed in favour of their love of hip-hop or experimental music. Of course, pop is always our entry point-into music. The early 80s were a good time, I think – certainly better than now for Pop. Synth-based Pop was especially amazing when I was a kid…I mean, it was a new style – that futuristic dream we were all sold. You know the style, about how we would be riding around in little spaceships in our technological cities, with robots doing everything for us. I guess the title of the new release, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was, is a reflection on that ideal we were all sold back then – I mean, sadly it’s not exactly Tomorrow’s World today, really. It’s not the techno city, really. Maybe we should reclaim that future ambition again. People seemed happier about the possibilities.”
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently…the point where The Future became The Past in people’s minds…
JLK: “Yeah, the future is a funny old business… I need to think when the future stopped being the future for me (laughs)…it’s an important question these days which must be answered [laughs].
“I am not a political man, but one thing about the future, I think, as a nation in Britain is when Tony Blair came in – we looked to a future out of the grip of the Conservatives as a time of change. When, in actual fact, we were given more of the same from New Labour and, in fact, it maybe even got worse. I think many lost their faith in the future then as change never came. As always, a constant in future is change. But remember the nation’s euphoria? – the same thing happened in America with Obama too and will ultimately lead down the same road with no new dawn. Where has that elation and hope gone? It’s been ground away and we’re just left with misery, despair and credit crunches everywhere these days back in Blighty. That’s my Lilly Allen lyric there: “It’s just misery, despair/ and credit crunches everywhere” – either her or the Arctic Monkeys can have that one on me [laughs].
“I have only played parts of the new album to a few people who have visited the flat here. Every response has been amazingly positive. Weirdly, one of the weakest tracks (to my ears) is the one from the video last year and that is a stunning track. I’m raising my own bar [laughs]. I’ve just spent the last 7 or so hours working on this one track, slowly distressing the audio so that it’s at the point of breaking…The killer is that it almost brings me to tears each time I listen to it. So I’ve spent four hours on the edge of becoming a mess…strange times..
“The track itself reminds me of something somewhere between Les Baxter and Brian Eno (or Harold Budd), but with this strange futuristic (in a bad Dr. Who way) style wobble that appears from nowhere and goes back to nowhere. There’s piano in there and it sounds totally out of tune, but somehow it works. I can’t quite work out how it does work. The title is relevant too: ‘When Did Our Dreams And Futures Drift So Far Apart ?’.