INTERVIEW

When Adam Bainbridge released his debut album of hi-fi funk pop in 2012, his critics took a twisted pleasure in telling him where he’d gone wrong. So he went away and made an even more uncompromising record

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“Whoah, we’re getting into Sydney Morning Herald territory there.” Adam Bainbridge takes a walk across his prefab dressing room. I ham an inflated cheer; some new goal reached after 70 minutes of conversation.

Earlier, Bainbridge – Kindness, as he’s publicly known – told me how yesterday he’d given the best interview of his life. When I asked him what made it so special, he told me how the journalist asking the questions “knew the balance between prodding me to answer a question I was reluctant to answer, and then he knew how to bend away from the thing that was becoming really heavy, bring it back to something comfortable and then spring another one on me.

“It was like, I don’t know what you’re doing, but this is the most efficient therapy I’ve ever had.

“He said: ‘You seem to straddle this fine line between making a lot of jokes and being super earnest’. And I’m like, ‘the jokes are a form of defusing the earnestness, because otherwise that could easily be my default setting, and that’s not a fun place to be.’”

In 2012, I interviewed Bainbridge twice – in February for our following month’s cover feature, published the same week that Kindness released his debut album, ‘World You Need A Change Of Mind’; and again in December, to reflect on the year gone by. However artful, prodding would not have been appreciated on either occasion.

At the beginning of the year, Bainbridge, as he is today, was a thoughtful, candid, dry interviewee, who often delivered his answers after a long pause of consideration. He wasn’t about to agree with me just to keep the peace, and I liked that more than I thought I would. But he was also suspicious – of how I’d write him up, and why I cared what he had to say. “Ninety-five per cent of everything you should want to know about a new artist should be in the record,” he told me.

By December of the same year, Bainbridge had been through the wringer. Commercially speaking, ‘World You Need A Change Of Mind’ had underperformed. Polydor had dropped him. It was the thin end of a wedge that had many misunderstanding Kindness, sometimes to the point of disproportionate abuse. Some openly told him that they loved his live show but not his record, presuming it to be a compliment. When he made a short film documentary for Vice about Washington’s Go-Go scene and late-70s band Trouble Funk (a group Bainbridge had sampled for his standout track ‘That’s Alright’), one comment beneath the post read, ‘this would have been cool if it didn’t have that cunt in it.’ The sobering realisation was that the music he was making (hi-fi neo funk, heavily inspired by ’80s RnB, pop and New York disco), and the way he was making it, had a much smaller audience than he’d first thought.

Erol Alkan’s suggestion was that ‘World…’ may have been “too all over the map” to be seen by many as cohesive. Bainbridge conceded: “I was assuming that a lot of people have the same musical background as myself. I suppose I always knew that there was a large, musically intelligent audience that would appreciate the record, but when you’re also aiming for the whole pop audience, that’s not necessarily what they’re coming to the table with.”

Hung up on the muck slinging, that December evening I left a downtrodden Bainbridge seemingly questioning what it had all been for. And so when we received a copy of Kindness’ second album, ‘Otherness’, a month ago, I was surprised; not by its very existence, but rather by how it exists. If ‘World You Need A Change Of Mind’ had proven too obtuse for its intended pop crowd, ‘Otherness’’s refusal to dumb down accordingly is quite startling. It begs the question if it’s intended for a pop audience at all, or if Bainbridge has instead shifted the goalposts to suit himself. If at first you don’t succeed, it seems you can always redefine your own success.

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Backstage at Unknown festival, Croatia, I find Adam Bainbridge in a sweet spot – between the high of having just performed and the anticipation of what’s to come: a headlining set by Nile Rodgers and Chic. Rodgers to Bainbridge is like Jackson to Timberlake, or Lennon to Gallagher. The night will end with the whole of the Kindness band front-centre during a stage invasion for ‘Good Times’, followed by a group huddle in the wings and heist cheers of disbelief. Yet Bainbridge seems contented beyond our here and now. He currently lives in Geneva, with his girlfriend, a visual artist. Together they’ve spent the last year or so globetrotting, from one artistic residency in Texas to the next in India, with six months in Berlin already planned for 2015. Bainbridge has recorded ‘Otherness’ out of his suitcase, collaborating with friends all over the place. It’s been a far cry from the making of his first record– a regimented two-man job completed with Philippe Zdar, Phoenix Producer and one half of French duo Cassius. But most of all, Bainbridge seems happy to know what’s coming; to have already lived the album cycle once before; to have some idea of what is achievable with the kind of music he makes; to have read the shitty YouTube comments and essentially learnt to ignore them. He’s also ready to admit that there is now a reason to talk to him; that there is enough Kindness music out there to open a discussion worth having.

“Looking back at [2012] now, it feels like toughening up, in order to make this [‘Otherness’],” he says. “Everyone needs a first record and the public aspect of putting your thing out there and taking the rough with the smooth. It’s not easy. But I wouldn’t want to be a coward. Even the stuff that was discouraging was encouraging, in a way, because you have to prove these people wrong; you have to show them that you’re planning on staying around for a long time. Fuck ’em.

“There’s a freedom that comes with having made a record exactly how you wanted to make it,” says Bainbridge, “and you’ve done those things and you’ve achieved what you set out to do. When you start making music you don’t think beyond the first record.”

Kindness’ dream had been to record with Zdar, and in the producer’s Parisian studio the pair whittled ‘World You Need A Change Of Mind’ into a sharp, shiny, flawless whole. ‘Otherness’ goes the other way, embracing a one-take policy and celebrating human error. When I ask Bainbridge how he feels the two records compare, he says: “That’s a bit like comparing your children.”

I’m not after a favourite, I tell him, just how they differ from one another in his intended view.

“I guess by default, working with Philippe in one environment, you refine things,” he says, “and it sounds glossy and polished and in many ways it was the most final version of anything I wanted to achieve. And then with something like this, where you’re recording in different places with different people, and often not with the same level of technical luxury, there’s another freedom of, ‘fuck it, it’s raw and it’s the first take’. We’re not really going for glossy, we’re going for real, so after one take it’s like, well, that’s it, it’s finished. That’s how I see this record – a lot more raw, and lot more unfinished, but unfinished in a way that keeps everything exposed to people. They can hear the mistakes, and the moments when it’s out of tune or where someone’s voice is cracking. When the saxophonist can’t land his run on the sax and he screams out of frustration, I want all of that to be there, because that is what I like about other peoples’ records.

“When Jay-Z says ‘turn the music up in the headphones’ [on ‘Dirt Off My Shoulder’], that’s my favourite bit of the song. You connect with the humanity of the individual.”

Did your first album suffer at the hands of editing, then? Would you leave in more of the mistakes if you could do it again?

“Fuck yeah,” says Bainbridge, later deciding that it is simply a different type of record. “I’ve told this story so many times now but it’s a really powerful affirmation of what I thought was true: Kate Bush is interviewed about this reversions record that she’s putting out where she’s redoing old material. A lot of this stuff is definitive in peoples’ minds, and she says, ‘I’m taking the opportunity to go back and correct all the mistakes that have bothered me for all this time, and yet I know that those mistakes are all the bits that people most like about those records.’ She knows that, but I guess I’m more reckless; I embrace that from the get go.

“This is a cheesy example, but in Kenny Loggins’ ‘I’m Alright’, there’s a mistake where he comes back in too soon, and they’ve left that in. It makes the track.”

Like ‘Polly’ by Nirvana, I suggest, but Bainbridge has to take my word for it – as he told me in 2012: “I don’t like indie music – culturally I have nothing in common with that.”

‘Otherness’ sure is rougher, but music so breathy, and with soul as its base ingredient, somehow feels smooth even in its most primitive state.

“But that might not be gloss,” says Bainbridge, “that might be attention to detail. You can leave something really chaotic and raw, but that doesn’t mean that you weren’t thinking about it. I’m still pretty obsessed with the way that things sound.

“Especially the vocals on this record, a lot of the time it’s just the person doing the thing for the very first time. Something like ‘Geneva’ [a barely-there duet ballad], Kelela’s vocal is a subtle element, but what you hear her adlibbing over the lyrics is the very first time we met, the very first time she heard any of my music, and I just played everything I had in one long take and she sat at the back of the room with a microphone and improvised.

“She gets frustrated with me, because she wants to get it right, but I’m like, ‘this is my party now, and my party is all about the first time.’”

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Other guests on ‘Otherness’ include Devonté Hynes, vocalist Ade, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest and Robyn, who appears on ‘Who Do You Love?’, a bona fide could-be pop hit on a record that shirks mainstream acceptance. Much of ‘Otherness’ challenges you to find a hold, in fact, with tracks often consisting of extended instrumental parts, loose jams and an overriding theme of the interlude. Verse/chorus/verse is completely done away with. The ideas, while still high fidelity, feel sketched out. Lyrical refrains, once they do appear, are repeated almost mantra-like.

“I remember playing ‘Eighth Wonder’ to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and to this day they think I’m a nutcase. I told them that my Instagram was called TooDamnFunky, and I think Terry said, ‘TooDamnQuirky, more like.’ But I was trying to explain to them that I appreciate that pop music has a form, and they’re the masters of pop music and knowing how to balance just the right amount of words and communication in a song. And I told them that I would like to take a risk; I would like a song where the only lyric is ‘Thinking about my baby now’, nothing else. And they just raised their eyebrows like patient uncles. I mean, they’ve gone through everything – less lyrics, more lyrics, no lyrics. I could have done an instrumental album in some ways, so I thought if the music is already strong enough on its own, maybe just adding one line is enough, because it says exactly what I wanted to say.

“I’m a student of dance music on many levels, and there’s something about the organic repetitions on the ’70s and ’80s when people were making these edits of other peoples’ records. Like, there’s the Ron Hardy remix of ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ by First Choice, and that record is perfect and in many ways better than the original because he realised that repetition is power, and there’s a number of times when repetition can build to the ultimate climax of something. Just one more time and it would lose everything and come tumbling down, and one less time and it wouldn’t have reached that climax at all. It’s having that natural instinct to know that repeating this one thing over and over again is going to make people lose their minds. I’m not trying to get to that ecstatic place, but I still come back to that breakdown in that song where he just repeats ‘baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby,’” he sings. “I mean, who thought of that!!??”

Of course, I can’t let Bainbridge meeting Jam and Lewis pass without questioning, not least because these guys – the writers and producers behind Janet Jackson, Alexander O’Neal and Mariah Carey, to name a few – have been so instrumental in Kindness’ musical schooling.

He says it was an “I-should-just-quit-music moment, because in the pantheon of living musicians, there’s not much beyond them.” But Bainbridge didn’t just meet his idols in the same way that I once met Paul McCartney on a staircase (ask me about it sometime); he met them, liked them, and he, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Robyn have all been working on a project together since.

On his phone, Bainbridge has a video of the duo playing ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately’ in the studio. Cherrelle and SOS Band, too. “As rookie as that is, I knew for a fact that some people I know would not have believed it,” he says.

“It was like being one of the two giraffes that got to go on Noah’s Ark. It was like, ‘Me? There’s a lot of other giraffes out there. I mean, I won’t say no – show me the ramp; I’m walking up.’ I kept going to the bathroom and splashing water in my face, like, ‘good ideas, good ideas, that’s all they want.’ They’re going to read this, by the way. They’re going to laugh at me.”

Bainbridge took some of his old material to Jam and Lewis, just as they’d taken some of theirs to him.

“I played ‘That’s Alright’ to Jimmy and Terry and I said, ‘I honestly thought that this was a great piece of pop music’, and if people didn’t get that that was a great piece of pop music… I mean, I’m not even singing on that song, so I can just appreciate that it’s what was amazing about that Trouble Funk record and a vocal melody I wrote that sounds like Beyonce singing with Trouble Funk. If people don’t get that, they’re never going to get it. So I’m going to make the music that comes out now, because I went there; I went to that place, and if it didn’t work, fuck it.

“I just said that in the wrong way,” he says. “I’m sounding negative, and I don’t want to…” out of character, Bainbridge trails off.

I ask if the process of releasing his first album had changed him – the accomplishments (there were plenty of those, also) as well as the disappointments.

“I don’t think the record has changed me,” he says, “but life has changed me. Records are an indication of where you are in your life. They’re very honest, telling snapshots of where you are, but your life is still the overriding thing.

“I read a really interesting review of these Kate Bush shows by Tracey Thorne today, and she was saying that Kate Bush’s development as a performer is not indicative of rehearsal or perfectionism, it’s just an indication that she’s lived her life; that she’s had children and felt deeply about something that isn’t her music. That’s the thing that allows her to put it all out there. You can’t rehearse that honesty, it just happens.”

It’s honesty, I’ve come to realise, that propels Kindness more than anything else. When he’d had high hopes for ‘World You Need A Change Of Mind’, its success came with a caveat of truth. The reason he and Philippe Zdar had refined that album so aggressively was to strip it of all misdirection. It was important for Bainbridge to live or die by his work as seen through a microscope. As he once told me of his hi-fi record in an increasingly lo-fi world: “If you just present what’s there, you’re offering people a choice to say it’s good or bad. With [‘World…’], people might hate it, but at least it’s been presented to them honestly.”

‘Otherness’ extends that manifesto in an even less forgiving direction.

“I think about the music that really moves me and it’s always when people took a risk and went somewhere almost uncomfortable,” says Bainbridge. “Whether that’s through over-repetition or rawness of production, it’s just saying, ‘I’m being honest with you. There’s no smoke and mirrors.’”

I point out the obvious – that he seems a lot happier now.

“Oh yeah, yeah. I was confused when we last met. I still am confused really, but there’s this theory, and it’s a theory that no one at my record label would want to hear, but it’s called 1000 True Fans, and they say that if you have 1000 True Fans of what you do, that’s enough to sustain you. Only 1000 people need to buy your record but also come to your shows and invest in what you do, and that is enough to keep a musician’s career alive so they can continue. I think about that a lot. I don’t need to please a lot of people – I just need to make a really honest, passionate connection with people that get this in its entirety, and that’s going to make me happy and it’s going to make them happy… and fuck everyone else.

“With making a first record, you don’t know who your audience is going to be, or how far it’s going to go, or how much support there’s going to be for what you do. Now I see that there is potential for things to go to a certain place, but whether it does or not, I’m going to be happy because I’ve made the record I wanted to. It was the same with the last one, I just didn’t know where it would go.”

We sit around and discuss Kate Bush – a subject that Bainbridge is well versed in. “Did you know that when she signed her record deal with EMI she told them that she didn’t want to do anything for a year, just take French lessons and dance lessons?” he says. “And they let her. I think that’s what every label should do. It’s the perfect gestation of an artist before they are given to the world. Twigs is kind of the modern example of that,” he notes. “She’s a physical presence, she’s a musical presence, she’s a visual presence, and you didn’t expect any of this shit, but here she is.”

Kindness, I argue, had a similar foresight. In 2009, when his limited debut single was met with the kind of premature, absurd praise that many artists have before now spun into a hastily delivered debut album, Bainbridge went to ground. He wasn’t seen again until a month before the release of ‘World You Need A Chance Of Mind’.

“Buzz is the kiss of death,” he says. “I was happy that it subsided. I think there will be records from this era that will be re-seen through the lens of reality as opposed to the lens of buzz and it will be a pretty brutal vision. I have a 1-year test. Apart from the things that I search out willingly, everything else in the contemporary sphere, I don’t really give a shit about, and then if my friends are still talking about that record a year later, it’s probably worth checking out.”

Chic are due on, but before I go I note something that doesn’t quite seem to sit with the Adam Bainbridge of 2014 – the contented Bainbridge; the prepared Bainbridge; the Bainbridge free of overblown expectation; the Bainbridge who happily resides in Geneva with his girlfriend, who travels the world making lawless, dreamy RnB however he likes, and who collaborates with his heroes on his days off. Despite all that, ‘Otherness’ feels a damn sight sadder than ‘World You Need A Change Of Mind’ did.

“Yeah, it’s pretty sad,” he says.

Because it was written at a sad time?

“No. I’m just a sad person,” he half laughs.

Where does that come from?

“Whoah, we’re getting into Sydney Morning Herald territory there.”

I cheer.

“You mentioned Nirvana, for example, and I think that very often writers that have an inherent weight that they’re carrying around with them can put those things in a context that seems fairly universal – maybe it seems that they’re about love and relationships, but it’s about everything. The window dressing is that it’s about love, but it’s not about love, it’s about everything that affected you ­– how your life is unfolding, everything from the past – you can’t really get away from that. I don’t even want to get away from that because it’s made me who I am.”

Are you really a sad person, I ask, or is this the joke Kindness?

“That’s not the joke Kindness,” he says, “that’s the honest truth, and it’s not necessarily a palatable one. I mean, music for a lot of people is a cathartic thing. You can dress it up as a love song, but it’s about everything.”

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