Cover Story: Kindness Finds a Home in Pop
Once an outsider in the underground scene, Adam Bainbridge finds a whole new community of collaborators.
From the magazine: ISSUE 93, on stands August 26th and up for preorder now.
Although he regularly describes himself as “weird-looking,” 32-year-old Adam Bainbridge, aka Kindness, seems pretty comfortable in his own skin. There’s a fair amount of it on show when we meet up one early summer day in London. Very tall and very thin, with hazel-green eyes, a prominent nose and wavy brown hair hanging well past his shoulders, he’s wearing a navy blue T-shirt and tiny watermelon-pink shorts. Bainbridge has the quiet confidence of someone who knows what he’s talking about, although it’s slightly shaken at the moment. There’s a bemusement at the smallness of the world following the realization that, although we’ve never met before, we know many people in common from the DIY scene here. “It seems like ancient history—obviously an important part of it, maybe even a formative part of it,” he says in his English baritone, mostly to himself, seeming only gradually to register that this unwittingly shared era of his past is actually worth noting. “Ah, who knows, maybe it is super-important.” It’s almost as if he doesn’t want people to know that he used to be involved in the London underground community, mostly as a spectator, hanging out at noise and avant-rock shows in Dalston in his early 20s.
Fast forward about a decade, and now he’s a globe-trotting recording artist, logging studio time with the likes of Solange Knowles, Robyn and songwriting and production team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis while masterminding a sophisticated pop project drawing from soul, funk, R&B and jazz. The creation of an admitted music nerd, his 2012 debut record, World, You Need a Change of Mind, wears its heart on its sleeve with a title riffing off of Eddie Kendricks’ disco-era, Motown-released “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind.” Full of funky riffs and loose grooves, the album’s disco pulse supports a gently buoyant songwriting that takes cues from diverse inspirations like Arthur Russell, Jam & Lewis and Daft Punk.
Now based primarily in Geneva, where he lives with his girlfriend, the French visual artist Pauline Beaudemont, Bainbridge is back in the motherland this week for a series of meetings and mastering sessions surrounding his follow-up, Otherness, due out this fall. Before getting in a cab to Shoreditch to meet a video person at Dazed, we stop at a small café—a regular haunt of Bainbridge’s due to its proximity to his recording studio, situated between Dalston and Stoke Newington—for lunch with video director Daniel Brereton. Over duck confit and pork patty butty, they bemoan the scarcity of original ideas, compare favorite recent videos and discuss logistics for an idea involving as many of Bainbridge’s family, friends and collaborators as they can round up. “It’s almost more important to get the collaborators,” he muses. “What needs to be highlighted in some ways with this record is how much those collaborators have given, especially the ones that might be less well-known. They have made things possible that I didn’t think were possible.”
Video seems to be an increasingly important strand of Bainbridge’s artistic output—both for his own music and as a director for others—showcasing his fondness for understated but playful concepts. Describing the sepia-tinged, almost-home movie he made for “Don’t Ask (Final Fantasy Version)” by Grizzly Bear, whose Ed Droste he met on Friendster sometime around 2002, he explains, “When I made [that], it was more, ‘I’m going to film you on a weekend away, and let’s see if it lends itself to your music.’ I think it did. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to create a universe that was sympathetic to the music they made?’ Making pop music that’s less immediate than other engineered pop, sometimes you need a helping hand that explains where it’s coming from or the emotional universe it lives in.” Accordingly, the video for World’s beatific single “House,” co-directed by Brereton, doesn’t even feature the song in full, instead showing Bainbridge teaching a child how to play it on keyboards and a drum machine. It feels like a peek into Bainbridge’s personality, highlighting a whimsical innocence with the music functioning primarily to intensify the emotional register.
“While I was in Philadelphia, I was overwhelmed by how generous people were in terms of the time they were prepared to put into a project that was really transient to them—someone coming for a month and then leaving.”
The next day, we’re a block away from the café at XXVII Studio, where most of Otherness was recorded and mixed. There are two spacious, comfortable rooms filled with second-hand furniture, a baby grand piano, racks of keyboards, a huge mixing desk and a tape machine, plus kitchen appliances, a shower and even a loft space with a bed. “Blue built this place with his father, even the plumbing and kitchen,” Bainbridge says, eyes wide with respect, referring to studio owner, album engineer, contributing musician and co-mixer Blue May. May was originally brought in by Kindness’ management to help organize and realize Kindness’ live band setup, but he’s since become integral to the project. Many of the instruments housed here belong to Bainbridge, and from the way he putters around the rooms, making tea or loading up tracks at the mixing board’s computer, you can tell he feels invested in the space. Judging from the “Kindness” sign hanging on the wall, May feels the same way about Bainbridge’s project, too.
As cozy as XXVII Studio may be, it’s clearly a professional operation, leagues away from the bare-bones, begged, borrowed and Craigslist-acquired digs in Philly where Bainbridge produced the low-fidelity recordings that kickstarted Kindness. “I started out as a DJ and a music lover,” he explains, seated on a gray couch by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and peering out from beneath a Top Dawg Entertainment baseball cap. “Kindness grew out of an arts residency I did in Philadelphia, in 2007. The idea was just that I work on something, and at the end I leave the residency with a record. While I was there, I was overwhelmed by how generous people were in terms of the time they were prepared to put into a project that was really transient to them—someone coming for a month and then leaving.” There’s no mistaking his belief in that communal warmth; his stay in the States came at a time when he felt a severe lack of it among his peers in the London music scene. “I left London at a moment when people didn’t seem in any way interested in helping each other,” he says. “I’m still not sure that people here help each other. It might also have been because my dad was really sick at the time, but I just remember feeling that London was a somewhat negative, Machiavellian landscape, and I wasn’t enjoying it very much.”
Alienation from the local community is a common theme for Bainbridge. Growing up in the small English town of Peterborough, the elder of two children born to an Indian mother and white father, he was always hyper-sensitive to race relations. He suffered occasional bullying, but more significantly, his family history was a constant reminder of the ugliness of prejudice. His mother’s family comes from a large Indian immigrant community in South Africa. Following apartheid there, his grandmother was arrested for political propaganda and for assisting people in the African National Congress, South Africa’s national liberation movement. One of her relatives was thrown from a 10th-story window during her interrogation, and she spent the next five years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement. “My grandmother’s passed away now, but it was true that that experience, no matter how far she’d come to acceptance in later life, stained everything,” he says. “I think as children, my sister and I didn’t realize the seriousness of what had happened. We knew that our parents were political exiles in some way, but we didn’t really understand why.” And though he himself “passes for white”—his mother has regularly been confronted with the accusation, “But this can’t be your child”—growing up with such a legacy has made otherness a daily concern.
If the sociopolitical awareness of difference doesn’t get an obvious airing in Kindness’ music, you get a sense of it in other ways. A video he made for the recent reissue of William Onyeabor’s 1979 funky wah-wah guitar number “Fantastic Man” features rollerskaters from New York’s Central Park Dance Skaters Association, most of whom are of color and middle-aged. “That community is aging now, and those older skaters have so much to offer in terms of the dance and the movements and the music they’ve internalized and the lives they’ve lived,” he says. “But when I looked for other footage of the group dancing, all of the people in the foreground were young, fresh-faced models, and they’ve pushed the older generation to the background. I was like, ‘Hell no.’ Those older skaters are the ones that can tell us a lot more about the culture and the music.”
Fitting to this sensitivity, the name of his own label, which has released all things Kindness since he founded it in 2011, is the unsubtle Female Energy. Named in a brainstorming session by Bainbridge’s old friend from Peterborough and late-2000s Berlin flatmate, Steven Warwick—aka the off-kilter analog house producer Heatsick—the label grew out of a desire to represent musical worlds outside “the macho, hetero-normative lineage of British music,” Bainbridge says. “I didn’t feel very comfortable within the London-based music community,” he continues. “I thought it was still quite macho and relatively misogynist and a little bit simplistically white and guys with guitars, at the end of the day. Female Energy was a way of saying part of what inspires me and should be represented more is the entirety of experience. There’s a whole continuum of culture and music and even internalized creativity that doesn’t just come from one side of a personality or gender.”
It’s a stance that chimes with disco’s philosophy of togetherness on the dance floor, and it feels absolutely natural on Bainbridge, whose heritage, somewhat androgynous look and open demeanor reflect a non-traditional English masculinity. Growing up in Peterborough may have meant not quite fitting in, but his ear for music offered some respite from the conservatism of his hometown. As he grew older—graduating from radio pop and guitar rock in his early adolescence to house music and jungle in his later teens—it was that ear that led him to connect with kindred spirits like Warwick. He played bass in their teenaged bands, and his earliest attempts at recording music were with them. Mostly, though, he and his friends couldn’t wait to leave, moving within a few years of each other to London, specifically Dalston, then a bustling neighborhood with a bad reputation hung over from its past as a place to score drugs.
Bainbridge moved there in 2004, at the age of 22, after his Peterborough mates had already established a base there, settling into a small building on the tiny alley of Miller’s Terrace, which housed members of Dev Hynes’ first group Test Icicles (Hynes lived across the street, and he and Bainbridge would later share a different Dalston address), along with the conceptual electronic duo Hype Williams and many other musicians and artists. Some of Bainbridge’s hometown friends were members of the grassroots promotion collective Upset the Rhythm and booked the unlicensed venue Bardens Boudoir. It was at a Miller’s Terrace house party where Bainbridge first met Alex Sushon, who would later become the idiosyncratic club producer Bok Bok, co-founder of the record label Night Slugs. It was a locus of energy for the intersection of London’s experimental and noise scenes, and although Bainbridge was friends with many of the participants, he still didn’t feel like he belonged. Not only was the community primarily white, straight and male, but his peers tended to dismiss most of the pop music he loved.
“Recording pop songs in a high-fidelity way, you’re putting everything on display. There’s no gauze over the ideas.”
If that Dalston era is “ancient history” for Bainbridge, as he puts it, traded for his current life as a pop impresario, his ties to that time still make themselves felt in unexpected ways. The Night Slugs link is a less obvious one, but a visit by Philip Gamble, aka Girl Unit, to the studio makes it more concrete. The affable producer has dropped in to play demos for his upcoming release, and the pair trade gossip and catch up as old friends do. One track in particular, with a slower, hip-hop beat, catches Bainbridge’s ear: “With your permission, I’ll send this to Solange,” he says to Gamble. “I think she might like it.”
Musically and professionally, Bainbridge has come a long way since his London days. Around the time of his Philadelphia experience, he began committing himself to hours upon hours of practicing, songwriting and home recording, which led to a reassessment of his goals. “Recording [pop songs] in a high-fidelity way, you’re putting everything on display,” he reasons. “There’s no gauze over the ideas. When that change happened, it was because I thought, ‘What do I have to hide? If I’m going to do something and be proud of it, I might as well broadcast it in an unambiguous way.” Mostly living in Berlin at the time,he returned to London around 2010, as Kindness began gathering momentum. An early single on the label Moshi Moshi in 2009 had caught the attention of larger companies, resulting in a deal with Polydor, which in turn enabled six months in a studio in Paris with Cassius member and famed engineer Philippe Zdar for World. Bainbridge doesn’t remember if it was Hynes or Grizzly Bear who introduced him to Solange, though with World as his calling card, he’s gone into the studio with her in both Ghana and New Orleans. For her project, he’s operating “more as a producer,” he says. “I think anyone that’s worked on music with her recently is a collaborator in an overall artistic sense. We’re not doing any direct songwriting. Those things are already there.”
While Zdar was the lone notable collaborator included on World, Kindness’ sophomore album is crawling with artists from around the world, including Hynes, Robyn, Kelela, inc.’s Daniel Aged, Syd Tha Kyd and famed producer/engineer to the stars Jimmy “The Senator” Douglass, whose discography includes records for The Rolling Stones, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. The Robyn-vocaled “Who Do You Love?” is an album highlight, the Swedish singer’s emotive voice matched with crystalline synth-pop production over a funky, crashing Bob Blank drum sample. It’s also striking to hear Kelela, who appears on several tracks, in such a radically different setting from the warped club beats of her mixtape for Fade to Mind. Bainbridge is deft with pop arrangements, both musical and social, and his choice of collaborators is consistently intriguing. If he never felt in sync with the experimental scene that surrounded him in Dalston—to the point that he’s reticent in acknowledging its role in his current position as aspiring pop auteur—he’s relishing his newfound peer group and the ability to connect with players from all over the pop spectrum, including revered masters.
Consequently, Bainbridge is brimming with colorful stories about his adventures in the studio, admitting that he and Hynes playfully compete with “You’ll never guess who I just worked with” emails these days. In one of his favorite anecdotes, he’s working on an unannounced “long-term project” with Robyn and Jam & Lewis. “[Robyn and I] had just done the final vocals [to “Who Do You Love?”], and we wanted to play it to them,” he recalls with a smile. “And the beat comes in, it goes away, it comes back in, and Terry goes, ‘You’re making me nervous!’ And then the beat would go away again, and he was like, [sighs with relief].’” No need to ask how Bainbridge feels about the opportunity to work with true legends in pop music; his wide smile and shining eyes say it all.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon in Somerset, two hours west of London by train, we’re lounging on the patio out-side of John Dent’s LOUD Mastering studio—a pleasant bungalow in the sleepy town of Taunton. Jim Martin, Kindness’ manager, has just arrived to check how the work is progressing. “I’m so glad that Blue is here to do the heavy lifting,” Bainbridge says, before leading Martin back into the big studio where May sits with Dent, a renowned technician whose résumé goes back to the ’70s. After spending two hours with Bainbridge on the first track of the album, May and Dent have essentially settled into a pattern of preparing a series of proposed, infinitesimal changes that Bainbridge finally decides upon, song by song. It’s time-consuming, exacting work.
As much as he delights in his life as an artist with resources, Bainbridge regularly gives himself a reality check: “I’m just a kid from Peterborough that loves music,” he says. “It’s the dominating thing, above making it—just being a fan.” Others are less surprised about his transformation from fan to artist than he is: “I thought it was perfect, actually,” says Hynes, on the phone from New York. “It was like, if anyone is going to make music, he should, because he has such a good mind for it. He has amazing taste. I’ve always said that anyone can produce, even if you can’t necessarily play instruments or whatever. Because it’s all just your opinion.”
Kindness’ career has somewhat mirrored Hynes’: both artists rely heavily on the talents of others, casting vocalists and musicians in many of their songs, and both bask in the accessibility of pop. Still, in order to stand out as an artist, you need more than impeccable taste, and in some ways, World’s weakness is its hyper-referentiality, especially in its two covers (the one a Replacements track, the other the theme song of a popular British soap opera). With Otherness, though, there’s an added level of complexity, like the discordant trumpet of album opener “World Restart,” or the rich jazz balladry of the Kelela-guested “With You.” Even as the lyrical themes remain primarily fixed in the realm of love gained or lost, Kindness is making pop a more thoughtful place, possibly where people from experimental backgrounds will feel comfortable.
“That’s the even bigger challenge,” he says, musing on the nuances of songwriting. “You can still be direct and emotionally honest with people but present something that’s musically complex or retains a number of layers to discover over time.” Otherness mostly dispenses with World’s friendly groove, but it uses the same lightness of touch to rewire the first record’s low-key party vibe into something more pensive, perhaps more emotionally invested. “I’ve already made a disco record,” he quips. “Why would I need to do that again?”
At this point, Bainbridge has managed to leverage his good taste as currency for the cosign economy, where artists endorse other artists by appearing on their records, thus increasing visibility for both. But this collaborative impulse also has a very personal basis. Kindness is a project borne from the musical generosity of others, and in enlisting some of his favorite living musicians to play, he’s creating his own, new community.
The spirit of Bainbridge’s music is perhaps best summed up with the backstory to “Who Do You Love?,” which he relates to me in the cozy kitchen of his friend Aymie’s house in Dalston. It starts with a night of drunkenness in Sweden with Robyn and her boyfriend, videographer Max Vitali, when the trio encounters an aggressive stranger on the way home. “He seems obsessed with being dismissed by people and his place in society—he’s a metalhead, he’s just angry about everything,” Bainbridge explains, jokingly. Although Bainbridge would rather play it safe and leave, fearing the newcomer could turn nasty, Vitali engages him, and the guy invites them back to his guitar shop. An impromptu 5AM jam session ensues, much to the delight of their host. Bainbridge continues, “The next day, hungover as fuck, we’re trying to piece together the night before, and we realize that guy and that experience are going to be the inspiration for the song we have to write. Because it was perfect: it really fit this idea of, what are you really that upset about? Why can’t you just be? He was alienated, an angry metalhead in a society that was so used to dismissing him, and I think when he saw Robyn he expected her to dismiss him, too. [Going back to the man’s shop] was a risky, crazy thing to do, but now that the song is finished, when we make the video, we should track him down. We should put him in the video.”