Between Worlds: An Interview With Kindness

The musician, singer and regular Dev Hynes collaborator talks about growing up a child of the world; how his musical journey lead him from small-town England, to London, Philadelphia, Berlin - and onwards.

When Kindness, the highly talented Peterborough-born Adam Bainbridge, pleaded for a desperately needed change of mind with his debut album, produced by none other than Cassius’ Philippe Zdar, he almost effortlessly connected the dots between his musical heroes like Nile Rodgers and Tom Tom Club, reverb-heavy vocals and the occasional cover to his very own mélange of refurbished disco, hypnagogic pop and the sound formerly known as chillwave.

Meanwhile, his second LP, Otherness, made its way onto several end-of-year polls, winning a raft of new listeners with its mix of confident songwriting and evocative lyrics, also featuring Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, Robyn and Kelela.

Falling into music through his record-collecting parents

My mum and dad’s joint interest in music definitely inspired me and despite losing their joint record collections, there were always records at home. My mother’s originally from South Africa. Her family are Indian and so we had South African records at home as well but mostly politicized and freedom music. My mother studied to be a nurse throughout her 20s, in Newcastle, and would apparently skip meals and spend all of her paycheck on jazz records. She was addicted to this acquisition and playing, of exploring the universe of possibility.

My dad was Motown obsessive. He liked psychedelic funk like Isaac Hayes, but also Philadelphia’s style of disco – the Philly Sound. He was a DJ, too, in his 20s and through to his early 30s. He started off doing this thing where British people – especially those with experience in catering, because he’d been a waiter in hotels – could work for the winter seasons in ski resorts, in Switzerland and France.

Isaac Hayes - By The Time I Get To Phoenix

In the ’70s, ski resorts had in-house discos and even if they weren’t very big, you still had to have a record library and turntables. I have these hilarious photos of him where it looks like a proper, peak, late-period Italian disco, with like spaceship DJ booths and all this crap. It wasn’t a big resort, or disco, but it still had that energy and seriousness to it.

Then he moved to Spain where he played in a weekend disco in a family restaurant. We visited when we were kids. Years later, we went back and had lunch in this restaurant, and he was explaining how the disco used to be in the basement. I have visions – even it’s not true – of that sort of Mancuso ethos of that anything goes, late night party. There were apparently a lot of people taking drugs, lying down in the floor for half the party as much as they were dancing.

He claimed he could play the 19-minute version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by Isaac Hayes. I mean, that’s just an organ drone for 15 minutes. How can you get away with playing that in a disco? I don’t think he was exaggerating, either. I think it was in an era where people’s appreciation of music was so intense, that it wouldn’t have been that weird in a disco.

Growing up, and how record stores opened up London to him

I grew up in a small town in the north of England. There wasn’t much in a way of culture or opportunities, but there would have been four record stores in Peterborough. People are going to know my age by the names of these stores, but HMV only just closed down and Virgin Megastore opened while I was growing up. Our Price was there for a long time, and then there was a localized regional chain called Andy’s Records.

Those four were sufficiently connected that they could order you stuff. That included vinyl, rarities and Japanese imports, whatever, just as long as they could find it in their computers. Even though these were national chains, the staff that works in them, in my time at least, were really passionate. You’d have caught the last 20 seconds of something on the radio the night before, and then go in and say, “Yeah, it had this synthesizer sound,” and they’d be “Oh yeah, it’s ‘Belfast’ by Orbital.” You’d be like, “Oh great, I’d order that, then.”

Orbital - Belfast

What really changed for me was when HMV put two (very cheap) turntables in the store and started programming good, current dance releases. You could go in every weekend and there would be maybe ten to twelve new 12-inch releases, and you could listen without even knowing what they were. Then I suppose that fascination with record shopping meant that when we did infrequently go into London as I got older, maybe three or four times a year, even though it was intimidating, I’d gotten used to going to record stores and bugging people. There was a little hub of independent record stores around Poland Street in Central London, so I would go to the holy grails in London, places like Black Market and Uptown.

It represents something that I couldn’t get from my own town; I was aspiring to a life where I could... find these white labels that just didn’t exist if you didn’t live in the big city.

I would dive in, feeling completely out of my depth because it was full of people who knew exactly what they were doing, and exactly what they’re asking for. They were used to hanging out with the guy behind the counter. People used to smoke in the record store, too, which was crazy. The bemused kid from Peterborough probably asked for something stupidly obvious, like the new Armand Van Helden, but if it was a good record then they would have it. It represents something that I couldn’t get from my own town; I was aspiring to a life where I could go and do that level of record shopping every week, find these white labels that just didn’t exist if you didn’t live in the big city.

London life, and beginnings as a musician

There was a briefly period in London where I was working as a tour DJ for my friend’s band. This is where I met Dev Hynes, who now records as Blood Orange. His first band was called Test Icicles, and they were playing their backing tracks off an iPod because they didn’t have a drummer. The iPod was plugged with a mini jack into two DI boxes on the stage and it would skip, actually skip, during the songs – especially if, I don’t know, the stage was shaking, or there was too much bass. The songs would just stop, so they’d start putting it on towels.

At one point, the tour manager said, “Guys, this is absurd. You’ve had people hold the iPod in their hands, just so it doesn’t skip. Why don’t just put it on a computer?” I said, “I can do that. I don’t mind. You tell me what song comes next, and I’ll just play it.” We started doing that and, since it was easier for them and I enjoyed it so I just, I would ride around in the van with them in the UK, being part of these live shows.

“They don’t care what it sounds like. I’m broke, so how about I do the remixes and we split the money?”

While we’re in the van, we would talk about their experiences with making music and the opportunities that were coming to them. Because they were having a bit of buzz and they were new, young band in London, the one crazy thing that kept happening was all of these unlikely major label artists were asking them to do remixes – which, if you were to do, they’d throw serious money behind.

Once in a while they would have time to do it but, generally, being in a new band meant that they had too much work to do, so we were talking about it and I said, “I think I could probably help with these remixes. I mean, no one’s really listening to what you do anyway. They just want to put it out with your name on it. They don’t care what it sounds like. I’m broke, so how about I do the Test Icicles remixes, you guys put your name on it and we split the money?” They said, “Yeah, all right. Let’s do that.”

Test Icicles - Circle Square Triangle

For the next few months, I would just sit at home and every time they got a new commission, he would give me the CD with the parts on it. I would look at it and think, “How can we do something really stupid with this?” Because that was the other thing - if I did one straight remix (something that was musically appropriate, somewhat thought out and felt genuine) like one we did for David Banner, the American hip-hop artist.

We sent it to them and they said, “No, no, no. You’re a young British rock band. It should sound like a young British rock band.” Then I did something so, so stupid. I did a remix that was just Slayer-style guitar triplets over horrible, Atari Teenage Riot-style drum machines – kind of as a “Fuck you, this is what you want, this is what you’ll get and you’re never going to accept it” – and the label came back and said, “We love it. This is exactly what we’re looking for.”

It was at the peak of the new rave era: one of the worst times to be a British musician of the past 25 years. I said to myself, “That’s it. I’m out.”

It was a funny year. It was a moment where I started to get lost in it, and I was thinking, “I don’t really enjoy this energy. You could make a career doing this, but you could also totally lose yourself in the idiocy of people commissioning remixes that they don’t care about.” The void that you’re sending this music into… it’s just noise pollution. You don’t have a great interest in it and then even when you do something that you feel genuine about, they don’t accept it. It wasn’t very satisfying. Also, the musical climate in London then…. it was at the peak of the new rave era, which is probably one of the worst times to be a British musician of the past 25 years. I said to myself, “That’s it. I’m out. I’m moving away.”

Moving around and finding his voice

I moved quickly, briefly, to America. The first time I used the Kindness name was at an artist’s residency in Philadelphia, in 2007. I’m sure other people who start projects with a name that has maybe too much significance would say the same thing, in that you do it for one of release and then you end up stuck with the name. It was appropriate for the project in Philly but now, it’s a little scary.

The music I made there was drastically different to what I do now because it was dependent on who was around. They wanted me to incorporate…. I wouldn’t say “found sound,” but they wanted me to try and put the city into the music while I was there, so I was going to thrift stores and buying a lot of used cassette tapes and using them as a layer in the recording. I would have three channels of new music, and leave a fourth channel for noise from the cassettes. There was lot of weird, evangelical stuff. There were also mall cassette tapes: where people would to booths in shopping malls to record songs.

The word Kindness is a universal concept, and a pretty important one. There should be no trademark symbol after this.

Other than that, it was about meeting my generation; people who worked in this warehouse space, working on music, visual art, whatever. I was trying to buy musical equipment as cheaply as possible on Craigslist (because I turned up without any of my own), and that would bring me into contact with the older generation of Philadelphia – people from all walks of life – and that was definitely a big part of the project, too. The word Kindness is a universal concept, and a pretty important one. There should be no trademark symbol after this. I have to tell people that from time to time, because I think it’s easier for them to forget. The more the people work with me, they just think, “Yeah, Kindness, Kindness, Kindness, Kindness, Kindness.” It doesn’t end here. It’s not the kind of closed, four-wall proposition. That word means something, and we have to be careful what we associate with it.

I’m not sure I like being or because, as I have to remind my label and my management from time to time, I don’t have any right to use that word. I find it insane that these social media companies are happy to assign me those addresses on their platforms, because it started off as a project in a collaborative art space in Philadelphia. That word and that concept is something much bigger than I am. My residency there was meant to end with me leaving something behind, no matter what it was or how good it was.

After the US, I ended up living in Berlin. During that phase, I thought, “I can be broke, but I can get away with being broke.” I deleted all the contacts from my email, and shut down a bunch of accounts. I was thinking, “I’m going to stay away from that side of the music industry. I kind of never want to see it again.” So, what would be the opposite of that, then? Working on music for pleasure, even if it has a very limited reach or audience? Even if it was only really for myself, and my three friends, working like that felt natural.

Kindness - This Is Not About Us

Every day you could do something new, 99% of which was instrumental, but I had an idea to get a vocalist to sing on these instrumentals. (You have more distance when you imagine someone else’s vocal on top: “Oh, what a great singer, this track is going to be amazing.”) I was building up a bank of half-finished songs, but I couldn’t find anyone. Maybe it wasn’t really the right moment to be in Berlin for that style of collaboration. There was this split in Berlin culture when I was living here, around 2007-2008, where it was either hardcore, “Let’s go out to techno parties and stay up for three days,” or, “Let’s go to the experimental noise show.” There wasn’t a pop ground between those two things. If there was an underground pop scene or song-based scene, I don’t know where it was.

The crux came along when, out of frustration, I decided to sing the vocals for these songs myself – and it was terrible. It’s still terrible, but it was also liberating and I won’t deny that the one thing you have to give people in the experimental scene – here or anywhere – is that they can hear a really terrible vocal on music and still see some potential. Even though it was terrible, I would have those friends saying, “Well, just play it. Come play a support show.” It was karaoke fundamentally, but in the pursuit of having things to play I would write more songs. Having done that live once or twice, I said, “Fuck it. I’ll just record it so that I have it. Maybe even recording it will give me ideas about how to harmonize this vocal, or arrange the vocal better.” And it didn’t sound that bad.

By Kindness on March 25, 2015

On a different note