Published Nov 17, 2009Although hauntology has its roots in the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, the term has been bandied about by music critics of late to describe that certain sub-section of ambient producers who sample purposely old or deteriorating recordings to build grainy, haunting atmospheres that say as much about time and age as about musical texture. William Basinski and Philip Jeck are two such practitioners, and so is British ambient sampler James Leyland Kirby, who currently uses old ballroom 78s from the '20s and '30s, with all their ambience and static, to bring the ghosts of a past era back to life. The very prolific Kirby got his start in the mid-'90s as pioneering pop-abuser V/Vm, and then moved onto samples of classical recordings as the Caretaker. But nowhere along the way has his catalogue reached the ambition and sublimity of his most recent work under his own name. Here, Kirby manages to strip away the trappings of the ballroom originals and translate their warm, affecting, wholly accessible ghostliness for the 21st century. At three discs, Sadly, The Future Is Not What It Was is a massive undertaking, an utterly memorable set that ranks alongside Basinski's Disintegration Loops as one of the quiet masterpieces of this decade.
This is the first time you've decided to release material under your name. Why now, and why for this music?
The main reason for not using an existing project name is that the music made does not fit any of the other names I have used for my main works. It simply wasn't a V/Vm, Caretaker or Stranger release. The audio is also more personal to me in many ways, as it covers the period of time spent creating it in Berlin. It's more introspective than any releases that precede it.
At three discs, Sadly, The Future Is Not What It Was is a pretty monumental undertaking. Can you tell us a bit about the impetus behind the project, how it got going this way and what you were looking to achieve?
It started off in my mind as being a double-album and no more. I got into making the tracks a lot longer than normal five- or six-minute pieces, which gave me time to submerge in each piece of audio. It was important on this release to make the tracks longer, as there seems to be less time to listen to things right now, with music a lot more instant. The idea was to make less of a fast-food-style release, making it more substantial, emotional and personal to myself. At the end of the ongoing recording process, I ended up with over nine or ten hours of audio; it was hard to cut this down into just a double album. In the end, it expanded to a triple-CD album. I felt it deserved to be released as a whole and not split into different releases.
History Always Favours the Winners, your new label, was started with this triple-set. What are your plans for this label, and can we expect more soon from this front?
The idea in stopping V/Vm Test was that the label had run its course and in the end, maybe lost a little focus after the last couple of projects I had done. The idea was to set up something new that had regained its focus. At the moment, I don't have so many new plans for History Always Favours The Winners. It will certainly be used for any new activities I undertake. I also plan to record some new Caretaker and Stranger audio at some point, but there is no fixed plan right now. After the last release, I need to recharge and take stock on where I am and where, if anywhere, I want to go with new projects.
Although you work under numerous names, the best known of these are the vastly different V/Vm and the Caretaker. How and when did V/Vm get started, and how did you then get going with the Caretaker sound?
I started V/Vm in the mid-'90s, and it was surprising the success I had with all of the output that was released. I was surprised each time I could release something new, to be honest. The aim was always to release whatever I felt had energy, at the time. I think it certainly influenced a few musicians and people over the years, for its attitude and production style. Also with its copyright abuse, we take that for granted now - people are remixing audio and videos and uploading them all the time - but back then it was less normal. Only a few pockets of people were working in that way of taking whole tracks, abusing them and repackaging them. The Caretaker project started early in the process, back in 1998. There is a track on Chart Runners, an LP I made, called "Midnight at the Overlook," which uses "Midnight, The Stars and You" from The Shining. It's buried under noise, appearing and then disappearing. The Caretaker was initially an elongated version of that track, the first couple of albums featured reprocessed '20s/'30s ballroom music trying to capture a mood of loss, of ghosts and paranoia, like being in the "haunted ballroom" of The Shining. The idea developed over time to include memory disorders, as I have been researching how the brain is perceived to remember things and what happens when our internal wiring and memory recall go wrong. Any future releases will focus on this and move away from the haunted ballroom-style of the early releases.
These recordings evolved from 78s found in a Stockport record shop. What are you looking for when you go record shopping, and what are some of your preferred places to find good source recordings?
I was lucky back in the '90s to have this resource. Sadly, it's gone now, as one of the old men there died and the other sold up. Nowadays, I tend to have all I need, in terms of source material, and don't buy so many things. What I used to look for though were usually old compilations of ballroom music and then I would listen to them, note down the artists and search from there on 78s, 33 RPMs and 45 RPMs. I have an extensive enough collection of ballroom vinyl back in England to work from. What makes an amazing track, I can't say, but sometimes there is a feeling from the originals of sadness or loss. A lot of the best tracks were made between the first and second World Wars, so there is a great sense of loss in the lyrics and of ghosts.
Simon Reynolds has referred to this kind of music as hauntology. Does the term meaning anything to you?
It's just a label, which has been used to band a number of musicians, myself included, together, even though we work on many different sounding projects. Hauntology deals with the past being part of our present, so I guess the Caretaker fits that concept. The main thing is I was working on this audio way before there was a label put on it and will continue to change the concept behind each release and try to move forward somehow.
You've recently moved to Berlin. How has this changed your musical outlook?
A lot of people have seemed to pick up on some kind of Berlin sound creeping into the latest release. If it has, it's not intentional. I still feel as if things are the same as they were when I was in Manchester. As far as Berlin goes, I keep myself to myself, music-wise. I don't tend to see many other musicians here, although a lot are here now, and don't go out to too many music shows. It's interesting as from time to time, I do get to go to some of the bigger, well-respected clubs here, which I am told are some of the coolest in the world, for example, Berghain. To me, I lived through the electronic music explosion in Manchester, and the energy in clubs then was amazing and like nothing else since. The Berlin clubs do have energy but it's different; you get the feeling people are there to look good and to pretend to feel this feeling, unlike the initial days when it was about being there for the music alone. Maybe that feeling of a loss of energy has crept into the new releases, as it's all about the dream we were sold maybe 15 or 20 years ago and the realization that in many ways, society seems to have gone backwards. (History Always Favours The Winners)