World, you need a change of mind
Around six months ago we received an unmarked twelve-inch record in the post, a newspaper of what appeared to be random black and white photography, and a note telling us that just 30 of these packages had been made and delivered. A couple of months later a second record arrived, minus the newspaper and note. Then what we thought was a third, but what turned out to be a CD hidden in the back of a lavish booklet the size of an LP. They’d all come from Kindness, and that name rang a bell.
By February we’d also been sent an email invite to a show – a short video of a long haired guy sat behind a drum kit covered in sandwiches. “Bonjour les amis,” he said down the lens. “You might remember me from such shambolic shows as The Macbeth, the Highbury Garage, the Chameleon Club. Well, on February 23rd, you’ll have a chance to see just how shambolic it gets. I hope to see you there.” Curious.
Trawling the Internet to find out what the fuck was going on, we came across very little information regarding Kindness. Some out-of-date blog entries and a Guardian New Band of The Day article from 2009 reminded us where we’d heard the name before, but all they really confirmed was that the guy with the sandwiches was called Adam Bainbridge, that he was Kindness, and that he played pop music inspired by ’80s funk artists. We knew that much already, though, from the records he’d sent us (singles ‘Cyan’ and ‘Gee Up’, and debut album ‘World, You Need a Change of Mind’). Even his website refused to rat him out, featuring nothing but the cover art of ‘World, You Need A Change of Mind’, and even then too big to be viewed all at once.
Until now, Adam has steered well clear of interviews of any kind. “Ninety-five per cent of everything you should want to know about a new artist should be in the record,” he says; a hard point to argue against, even when you’re a music magazine. The thing is, wry, eloquent and visibly passionate, Adam makes for a refreshingly open interviewee. He talks slowly, often pausing to consider the question. It’s not to ensure he says what he’s supposed to, in fact it’s the opposite – to ensure he says what he wants.
We take a seat in a Hackney coffee shop that doubles as a fashion boutique (of course). Adam finds a top hat and declares that he’ll wear it for the length of our stay. His press officer mentions that a member of London band Tribes wore a similar one to the NME Awards last week. Adam quickly returns the hat to where he found it. White indie rock, as we’ll find out, is not for him. Pointing at the espresso machine that’s recently stopped slurping and hissing, he says: “Every time that goes off I’m going to stop what I’m saying and say what I really feel – something outrageous that you won’t be able to hear on the Dictaphone.” A couple of hours later, we’re happy to know more than the remaining five per cent.
Recorded in Paris with Philippe Zdar of synth pop duo Cassius, ‘World, You Need a Change of Mind’ is a record clearly inspired by the 1980s that wanted to get down to funk, pop, slick RnB and New York disco. The Princes and Grace Joneses and Alexander O’Neals. The cosmopolitan crowd that never seemed that bothered about what was and wasn’t cool, but in turn became icons of alternative pop music. Then, it was about making music for clubs that may well have been subversive, but was definitely, proudly popularist; music with a production value so high you could hear it in the slap bass. Kindness certainly has that.
“And that gave me the willies at first,” says Adam, “because lo-fi is everyone’s comfort zone – it sounds good. Sonically, there is a charismatic wooziness and a warmth and druggy haze over those kind of recordings, even if these people are teetotal knitters. Lo-fi lends an immediate charm to recordings, and a song that maybe wouldn’t be as strong if revealed in its raw elements (this is the guitar part, this is the bass part, these are the drums) can be. Having come from that background, it is quite a scary prospect to remove the comforting charm that was on your previous recordings, and say, ‘here I am! This is the chorus and these are the chords!’.
“Once you’ve made that decision and decided to not exist in your comfort zone, and not to deliberately obscure things, the only option left is to be fully ambitious and try to fully realise each idea,” he continues, “even if it means being a little over the top, or working with a crew instead of one guy with a VHS recorder in a basement, which is how we started off making videos – twenty five minutes with a primary school VHS camera, edit it in fifty minutes and stick it on YouTube. That was a great feeling at the time, but now that those things have also become recognisable visual tricks for new music videos, I felt I’d be more comfortable going to the other extreme and playing with the high production values.”
Adam notes that a hi-fi sound “leaves you nowhere to hide”. “If you just present what’s there,” he says, “you’re offering people a choice to say it’s good or bad. With the album, people might hate it, but at least it’s been presented to them honestly.”
This month, on March 19th, he will release ‘Gee Up’, it having already been Kindness’s very first single, released by Moshi Moshi in 2009. Re-recorded and no doubt improved, Adam decided to give the song’s original video the same treatment – a hi-fi facelift. The result is an astute parody of a group attempting to appear lo-fi at great expense, rather than out of necessity. The original grainy video of his band’s live performance plays out before we’re shown what’s really going on – the vast studio production behind this fake authenticity. A large crew mill around, people call for lattes, multiple cameras are reset, it turns out that Adam, whose hair in the video constantly obscures his face, has been played by a girl the whole time. The best gag, though, comes from what are presumably two record label employees. “I kinda like it,” one says. “Lo-fi with hi-fi values.” “Would have been better two years ago, though, wouldn’t it?” says the other.
“I think that’s an honest comment that a lot of people at my record label would have said,” says Adam. “I was trying to imagine what some of the real conversations about the band would have been. I’m sure someone somewhere has said, ‘It’s great because they’ve really nailed what it is to synthesise that lo-fi wonkiness, but they’ve made a record that sounds really polished and quite pop!’,” he says in mock executive excitement, then rolls his eyes. “‘Okay, well it wasn’t that deliberate, guys, but thanks for pointing that out.’
“I imagine there is some guy at a major label somewhere who says, ‘the blogs are going to love these guys, let’s make a really cheap looking video’, but he’ll spend sixty thousand dollars doing it. Or hiring a moronic production company that knows how to find young people who look a certain way who are going to fake sex in the back of pickup truck in a junkyard. I mean, the visual cues that the mainstream has taken from lower budget music videos, you see it everywhere now, and it’s kinda gross.”
Kindness has signed to a major label, though – Polydor, a division of the mega conglomerate Universal Music Group.
“How has it been entering the dragon?” he asks. “I wish the coffee machine would start right now.” Adam orders another latte, returns and pauses. “No, in all honesty though, to make the record I envisaged, it needed a studio like Philippe’s (a fully analogue studio with a real desk and a lot of great synthesisers etc.). In the ideal world, you have everything you need in one place (and this really is the dream, and I’m not taking it for granted), and you can just get on with it. Philippe takes his studio seriously and he’s invested a lot of money into it, but he’s also recently won a Grammy [for his work on Phoenix’s fourth album, ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’], which means he’s no longer available to everyone off the street. And, basically, what he was charging wasn’t extortionate, but I’m not sure an indie would have paid it. I think they could have, but would they have taken a punt on a first record with me? No.
“And I had that conversation with people at indies, and all of the encouragement from their end was, ‘oh, do it yourself, in your room, preferably on a laptop. Put that old school methodology out of your mind, because it’s really not relevant anymore.’ And I was thinking it was a reasonable thing to say, but at the same time I felt they weren’t taking my ideal scenario seriously.”
In the great major label versus indie dispute, Adam – a man who has investigated both in no uncertain depth – offers an extremely measured view on the topic. He’s signed to a major, fully aware of the boardroom bullshit that goes on upstairs, but who’s to say that doesn’t happen at a lot of the indies? Not him.
“Do you feel that majors are unable to support interesting new acts now?” he asks. “Because when acts get dropped instantly, are you not aware of the same thing happening at indies, because I am. There’s a lot of people who do development deals with indie labels and that material will never see the light of day, and these artists are working on creating their sound for a couple of years.
“The thing I would say to a music fan is, ‘Fair enough, give me a hard time for signing to a major, but then also come and ask me why. Or name a label that you’re a big fan of, and maybe I can explain to you something about those guys that you didn’t previously know.’ I mean, there are some indie labels who have as much funding from major distribution and publishing arms as the majors themselves. And the other thing is, everyone’s in cahoots as it is. People’s shared interests are the same, it’s just who’s paying the cheques that’s different – I don’t think a young A&R man at Polydor has considerably different music taste to a young A&R man at 4AD. It’s true that the executive pressure might be different, but I think the reality for those bands is going to be quite similar. Or the policy of interference might be different but there’ll still be active interference from both kinds of label.”
On top of this, Adam has “never been a huge subscriber to British indie music”. Indie labels, he loves, but not the white rock bands they’ve long been synonymous with. “I’m a guy with long hair who has a band when he plays live,” he explains. “I have an awareness that at any moment someone might assume that this is an indie band, and I’m not a huge subscriber to that. So one way of bypassing that completely is to not sign to an independent label,” he laughs. “I don’t like indie music – culturally I have nothing in common with that.
“One way to look at it is, by having this opportunity and taking it seriously, we might be able to claw back some of mainstream pop culture, because fundamentally it is rotten – it sucks, big time. And if there’s a way of clawing it back it’s hardly a bad thing either.”
Adam grew up in Peterborough, the son of an Indian mother and English father. He moved to Paris to study photography, then to Berlin, then, briefly, to Philadelphia. He says his main goal when creating ‘World, You Need a Change of Mind’ was simply working with Philippe, and, despite being a solo artist, he considers his debut album his and his producer’s – a collaboration.
“The first Phoenix record was an alternative pop touchstone for me,” he says, “with its sonic potential and embracing of the hi-fi sound. And yet it doesn’t sound crass, and it doesn’t pulverise you in the way that a David Guetta record would. It sounds very genuine – they threw everything and the kitchen sink into it, and it’s their sincerity that glued it together and made it sound like people with a real passion for music had synthesised something unique at that moment in time. I had that same ambition. Having loved a lot of different sounding records, was there a way to synthesise the greater aspects of all of those and make it into something that was one person’s ideal new artist statement?”
Created with live instruments as opposed to samples and plugins, Kindness’s album sounds like a record cult club DJ Larry Levan would have dug. Musically, it has all the warmth of old skool analogue dub music, with an added ambient undertone that’s more 2012, and more chillwave. For a man who doesn’t like white indie rock, Adam’s cover of The Replacement’s ‘Swingin’ Party’ would come as a surprise had he not melted it down into a gently pulsating last dance, and the same could be said for his take on Anita Dobson’s ‘Anyone Can Fall In Love’ (itself a take on the Eastenders theme tune) – here a proto slow jam that’s either sexy or sinister, depending on how paranoid you’re feeling. There are plenty of upbeat numbers too, that point more towards Adam’s love for the modern alt. pop of Phoenix, and ‘That’s Alright’ (possibly the album’s best track) is like Paula Abdul collaborating with Afrika Bambaataa, saxophones squealing over a typical ’80s soul brag that booms “The beat is back!”.
It’s taken Kindness five years and at least four countries to reach this point, though. During that time, he left London for Philadelphia to take part in an arts residency proposed by a friend. “He said: ‘Here’s the deal. I’ll give you a room in our house, a bicycle, a studio, if you want to do something musical, a PA system, instruments and a four-track, and you’ll have a month to work, but we’d like you to leave something at the end of it’.”
It was essentially the start of Adam’s musical career (in 2007), and having a deadline and knowing that he needed to produce a finished piece of work to trade for board, it gave him the focus to complete a twelve-track CDR. He’d only half attempted to make music before then, uninspired by London and unimpressed by the underground’s general unwillingness to collaborate. “I might see a guy play a show at an Upset The Rhythm show, or at Barden’s, and I’d say, ‘wow, that was fantastic. Would you consider playing guitar for me next week? I have a little recording set up around the corner and I really love your guitar playing’, and people would just give you a dirty look. I’m not sure if it was a defensive thing on their part, but for all the inclusiveness there was a reluctance to really collaborate. To go up to someone cold and ask if you can do something together, it was like I’d pissed on a photo of their grandma. In Philadelphia, people would be like, ‘Sure. Do you have 15 minutes now? Let’s do it’.”
The reason his name rang a bell is because Kindness first released a single in 2009, creating quite a furore in the process. He disappeared soon after, well aware of how ridiculous the hype had become.
“I felt the whole thing was absurd,” he says, “because the press interest seemed completely out of proportion to what I’d actually done. And I felt the NME were particularly very heavy-handed – at one point they gave me an ultimatum along the lines of, ‘we only break new artists at this point in their career; if you don’t do something with us now, you’ll never get anything with us again’. And I didn’t have any label or management, and I was given this intense ultimatum by this music magazine that, at one point in time, I really respected. I couldn’t help but think, ‘why?’.
“The same goes with interviews. I mean, even now, you as a journalist and myself prior to the release of the album, we only have a finite amount of things to talk about. Imagine what it’s like when you have a two-track 7-inch coming out on an independent record label, you’ve never played a show and you’ve literally only just finished writing your fifth song. What is there possibly to talk about? As least you’ve heard my album, but even then…
“I’m not saying that every new band should emulate MIA, rip up the rule book and throw it away, because that can be posturing as much as anything else, but, in interviews, there is this bland imitation of what’s been before, being reproduced by the white, generic indie rock bands I was talking about.” Adam pauses. “Although the more hideous crime is being twee,” he says. “If there’s another twee, white indie rock interview I’ll strangle them with their Belle & Sebastian stockings.”
Adam Bainbridge should definitely do more interviews. He’s pretty good at them.
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