Kindness on Immediacy, Working in Collectives, and Missy Elliott

Adam Bainbridge is more than just a pop music aficionado. As Kindness, he’s a student of pop and has long been fascinated with its history, something that shows in his unique interpretation of the musical style.

In 2014, he released the second Kindness LP, Otherness, which features the likes of Robyn, Kelela, and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, the last of whom Bainbridge collaborates with regularly. It’s a smooth take on pop that flows best as a whole rather than plucking individual moments to focus on, a concept we spoke about with him while he was on tour in London.

[jump] Bainbridge currently lives in Berlin, which he calls “a great city, but it's not particularly cheerful at this time of year. That's what California is for.” San Francisco welcomes Kindness this Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Mezzanine and we had a moment to speak with Adam about influential pop greats like Missy Elliott, what goes into making a great collaborative album, and working with legendary producer/engineer Jimmy Douglass:

We were so excited to hear you were coming to play Noise Pop, since you bring something really different to the table. What’s your stage setup going to be like?
There's going to be six of us, and it's pretty live I suppose. We aim to do as much as we can with instrumentation, rather than the computer thing. And sometimes it's an interesting contrast to be playing at festivals and being on the bill with other bands. 'Cause we’re maybe drawing on a different set of influences and live influences from what a lot of other people are drawing from at the moment.

I’ve never seen a Kindness show before, but I’ve seen you with Blood Orange a couple of times and I think that’s something I definitely appreciate about that live performance, is how much goes into it musically.
Yeah, I think Dev and I are on a similar page, and we like to get together with similar kinds of musicians as well. We have the same drummer now. We’re trying to save money [laughs]. The more shows we play together, the cheaper it gets.

So have you always envisioned Kindness as being a collective type project, similar to the Blood Orange collective that you’re a part of?
Well, I think it’s collective in everything but the bank account. That’s mine and mine only … there's not very much in it anyways [chuckles]. But yeah, it’s about getting together with the people that can keep you going. The people that can keep you inspired and make it fun to play a show every night. I’m looking fwd to doing it with this crew, cause we’ve done it for so many consecutive days either. We normally play a sporadic thing here and there. This is gonna be a real tour, like you see on TV.

So talk about building the community of collaborators. I’m fascinated with the journey of a bandleader that goes into roping everybody in to record the album. Do you jump from one city to the next to meet with everybody or is it just casual phone calls?
I think it's a bit of both. When you know you’re going someplace, you might consider who you know that lives there and if they have the availability to work on something with you. So when I came to L.A. during the album recording period, I would always check in with Daniel from Ink and with Kelela to see if she was there. There were a few other producers that I would get in touch with. Likewise with New York or in London. I wasn’t living in London, so every time I came here, it was an opportunity to reconnect with other musicians whose work I appreciate. And yeah, I think it is organic. I mean, theres a lot of people I would’ve loved to have added to the mix on the record, but maybe they just weren’t available. And equally there were surprises, when friends happened to be there at the right moment. So it's like trusting the hand of fate to deliver someone to the studio door.

I feel like I’ve heard so many stories like that in hip-hop. Where such-and-such became a part of the group, because someone was on a solo tour and this guy happened to be here and it turned into a long-standing relationship based on chance.
And that’s what’s nice about the social aspect of it. That might happen because of touring. It might happen because of the studio as a social environment. It's different from talking online or working collaboratively over email. It's really about the genuine personality of the individual. With maybe one minor exception, everything that we recorded collaboratively happened with everyone involved in the same space, same room, same studio.

There’s a magic to it. There’s something special about it that starts with the jazz greats and then moves on to Steely Dan and ends up with Missy and Aaliyah and Timbaland. It's always about these mad geniuses together in one space.

[page] Did you see Missy Elliott’s halftime performance at the Super Bowl?
I was excited about that. I was especially excited about the tsunami of recognition that happened on the internet afterwards, cause it’s nice to see a new generation discovering Missy for the first time. And that weird paradox of it being through a Katy Perry performance. Even this idea of people who appreciate that kind of pure pop can be exposed to something a lot more unusual and sophisticated but see that it’s as exciting and as accessible. I actually appreciate the generosity of Katy Perry of putting Missy on that gig and blowing everyone’s minds basically.

It was a pleasure to see her back, and I like that you mention her in the context that you reeled off. Timbaland’s beats for her made her such a pioneer. Visually too, with the fish lens effect in her videos.
Yeah, that whole collective. It's pretty crazy … me, Dev, and Samantha (Hynes and Urbani of Blood Orange) got in an Uber in L.A. the other day. And the guy asked what radio station we wanted to listen to. I told him 92.3, it's the hip-hop/R&B oldies station I like when I’m there. And he says “That’s funny, no one ever asks me to put that station on.” And I appreciate that kind of music. Then I don’t know how it comes up, that he was DeVante Swing’s ex-manager (of Jodeci). And he starts playing these weird DeVante Swing demos he has on his phone. And me, Dev, and Sam are like “What is happening?!”

He was around in that era … when it was the basement crew, it was Tweet, it was Ginuwine, Static Major, Missy, Aaliyah, Timbaland … Jimmy Douglas was there. And Jimmy was the one who was telling me all of this stuff to begin with, about that pre-Timbaland golden era that it was because of DeVante Swing. And it was just so weird to end up in the cab with this guy and the music that he was playing as well. That’s why it's fun to be aware of this history and to recognize that were still living in a pretty special era when these musicians are still active and have a lot to offer.

So Jimmy Douglass produced/engineered Timbaland and Missy and now he engineered your album. How’d you initially connect with him?
He mixed the Blood Orange record before he worked on mine. And I had talked to him years back about producing the first Kindness album. In the period where we were still debating if that would work, Philippe Zdar jumped in and said he would do it. With Philippe being in Paris, it was a little easier than me relocating to Miami for a year. But it was nice, it was great to finally get to meet him, to work with him; to subtly pump him for information on those Timbaland productions I like so much. And Jimmy also … he goes way back to Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. We had an argument where I said “Jimmy, you’re gonna have to use reverb on my voice” and he goes “Reverb?! I’ve never used reverb! I’ve never had to use reverb! Roberta Flack? Donnie Hathaway? You think they needed reverb? We didn’t even have it at Atlantic.” And I said, “Jimmy, I’m not Donnie Hathaway, so we’re gonna need a little bit.”

I love that the record jumps right into this gorgeous horn arrangement on the opening track. It sucks me in right away. Obviously, “Who Do You Love?” with Robyn is the most pop-accessible track on the album. She’s great on it, and you guys sound great together. 

That song is a little paradox in itself. Cause it’s very pop and she makes it so direct and universal. Yet it has a really awkward shuffling beat that doesn’t really make sense. It comes in and out. That’s what’s great about working with people that have such power and immediacy in their performances that you can do really weird things behind them and get away with it. I maybe don’t have as much conviction in my voice, so I have to tone down the idiosyncrasies. But with Robyn, you can kind of just throw anything at her and once she’s got her melody, it’s bulletproof.

And same with Kelela … that’s what makes it so great working with those people is they kind of give you this opportunity to go somewhere quite extreme because the intensity of their performance is always gonna keep everything together and keep people engaged.

And you hit on a term I was going to ask you about. About the “immediacy” of your music or how your music maybe isn’t as immediate. Talk about that and what that term means to you in a pop context.
I mean … there’s immediate that I like. Something like “Follow Me” by Aly-Us … the Chicago house track or “Hey Ya” by Andre 3000. That's immediacy that I like. It's universal, you understand straight away that it's pop. But there’s immediacy that I think is lazy. This kind of engineering of synth sounds to be great for laptops and drops and kick drums that are all so finely tuned to illicit the peak response. And that seems a little cynical to me. I’d rather keep some honesty about it and some imperfections and rely on the songwriting to make the eventual connection. Not just the synth patch or the trap bass as it were, because I think those things will only remain in a narrow period of history, if that’s what you’re using to make a connection with an audience. If it has some kind of reach both backwards and forwards along the musical spectrum, then maybe those songs will stick around a bit longer. Even if they make less of a connection in the moment they’re released. But I’m happy. I'm happy to aim for longevity rather than hits … hits in the moment.

And that makes sense to me. Do you think that aim gets misunderstood in your music by some people? Cause when you break it down, that was fairly eloquent.
Maybe people will consider that overthinking in the first place. They would say it's a mistake to go that deep into it. I think that I have an appreciation of music, I enjoy other people’s music so much, I want to be a little disciplined in not doing the things I would criticize other people for doing. And maybe even, just as a byproduct of that it goes too far and it becomes overly idiosyncratic or eccentric or anti-pop in some ways. But at the same time, theres something really rewarding about seeing an audience of people grow, even if it starts quite small and you know that they’ve managed to understand what it is that you’re trying to say. Even if it's not that easy to understand, because if they got there, they’re going to be the most rewarding and engaged audience that you could wish for.

And I often think it's sad when I think about other musicians who came up at a similar time to me, but maybe had a hit and then you go to the show and all people want to hear is the hit. And they talk through every other of the nine tracks on the album and they don’t give a shit. I’ve been at those shows and you just think “that's gotta be demoralizing.” Because once you’ve established that kind of rapport with an audience, then album number two kinda has to be full of ten copies of the hit from the first record. Otherwise, it’s gonna go away. And for us, for me, for this project, it can only grow into universalness. You know, it started off quite difficult and it hasn’t got super easy, but it will get easier I suppose.

Yeah, I guess that lends itself to an inherent balance from track-to-track on a record. To where one track isn’t shining above the rest, it's more of a balanced production.
I mean … I hope it's about listening to a record as a whole. Cause I think it's not really the culture of music listening anymore to listen to a record from start to finish. But if you can find something that grabs you enough to do it, it’s still extremely rewarding. I did it with the new D’Angelo record, I did it with the new Bjork record, the new Jam City record.

It’s almost like you need to believe in an artist enough to give them that precious time now. And every time I find an artist who I believe in enough or I trust enough to sit the full 45 to an hour with my headphones on and my phone off and the computer shut, it’s a pretty blissful thing to do. 

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