Who is The Caretaker? The avant-garde experimentalist who soundtracked Lana Del Rey’s surreal Coachella outro

The singer closed her Coachella set to It’s just a burning memory by The Caretaker – the alias of James Leyland Kirby – whose work uses ballroom jazz samples to explore memory loss and longing.

Last Friday night (April 12), to cap off her first headline performance of Coachella 2024, Lana Del Rey exited the stage riding out slowly on the back of a motorbike.

It was a surreal moment, made especially so by the soundtrack, as a brass band of French horns, tubas and trombones played a sultry, dissonant ballroom-style track. Some fans were left puzzled, with one observer tweeting: “Lana Del Rey exits her Coachella stage while some scary/weird ass music plays in the background.”

But the ensemble was playing a live rendition of It’s just a burning memory – the crackly, cinematic opening track to ambient experimentalist The Caretaker’s six-album, three-year-long exploration of dementia, Everywhere at the end of time (2016-2019).

So who is The Caretaker? A now-finished alias of British electronic ambient artist James Leyland Kirby, The Caretaker’s avant-garde work used samples from early 20th century jazz age records, before bending and processing them to explore memory and its deterioration. As The Caretaker, he has created a memorial album to the influential late music journalist Mark Fisher, and under another alias V/Vm, wrote a whole album to be played over Tim Hecker’s Love Streams.

Kirby started The Caretaker project in 1999, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s legendary horror film The Shining, and in particular the closing scene that shows Jack Torrance in a photograph with other guests in the hotel’s ballroom. At first glance, it might seem like a strange reference point for a global pop superstar to make (and it probably is), but on top of her music exploring themes of nostalgia and memory, Lana has also taken influence from Kubrick. Her 2014 album Ultraviolence takes its name from a language found in Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, of which the American filmmaker made an adaptation so violent that it was removed from UK cinemas.

In a 2016 interview with The Quietus, Kirby explained the challenging nature of his work. “There is a certain type of listener who will be buying this for a particular type of sound. But they will be forced into different areas [of listening]. Because dementia’s not nice is it? So the later stages of the project are not going to be that nice… But even if they only listen once and say ‘What the hell is this? This is nonsense.’ That’s fine. Then I’ve done my job correctly.”

Kirby himself caught the Coachella moment, apparently unaware that the American singer would be doing so. He tweeted: “Lana Del Rey exiting the stage at her Coachella show to the sounds of The Caretaker wasn’t on my 2024 music bingo card but maybe it was on yours.”

Last Friday was not the only moment Kirby’s music has come to the forefront of popular consciousness, however. Towards the end of 2020, Everywhere at The End of Time became a viral phenomenon as TikTokers challenged each other to listen to the six-hour project in full. It saw Kirby’s music rack up millions of streams, with one TikToker describing the challenge as “literally the definition of pain”.

@helloypg literally the definition of pain. never cried listening to something. #everywhereattheendoftime #thecaretaker #fyp ♬ everywhere at the end of time – sam j


“There were two reasons my guitar player, Blake, and I decided this was the right song – the way, the three months of rehearsal in Sylmar played out was exactly like The Shining, we would joke about it as people were quitting, burning files—every day was a new insane other worldly challenge”, Lana told Crack on Instagram.

“On the other hand, one thing I think about every day is watching my grandfather live with Alzheimer’s for 10 years. It was the scariest thing to think that he didn’t know where he was or who he was to the point that it affected my sense of who our creator was. If everything happens for a reason, how could there be a reason for letting someone live without knowing who they were or where they were for so long- it didn’t seem fair and it made it hard to enjoy life to its fullest knowing he was suffering.

“On more pointed simple note it was a beautiful song, coming off the back of the foxtrot version of the great Gatsby song – sonically I think it perfectly embodied both sides of the coin of the rise and the fall of that era.”