These Restless Minds
Rjyan Kidwell Molts Into His Latest Musical Skin
It was the first performance of Sand Cats, Kidwell and Newton’s new band, and it didn’t go the way they expected. “We were convinced that people were going to be so pumped that a band was doing something other than being a band,” Kidwell says a week later, sitting on the floor of the Hampden apartment he shares with Newton, wearing a pair of red running shorts and nothing else, a single tiny braid emerging from his unruly mop of blond hair. “And immediately, it was like, ‘Oh yeah—there are people here who won’t give a shit no matter what we’re doing.’”
It’s tough to believe anything surprises Kidwell about shows. He’s stood onstage in front of crowds as small as five and as large as 5,000. He’s been a twee laptop experimentalist, a booty-rap prankster, a semiserious indie MC in gold fronts and a sweat suit, an explosively noisy goth in platform boots and eyeliner, and a shamanistic bandleader of a rippling, twisting tribal percussion collective. He’s jumped so restlessly from one genre to the next that the act of obsessively thrashing around in search of his musical identity has essentially become his musical identity. And he’s done all this in the guise of Cex, the alter ego he dreamed up in high school. But Cex’s days are numbered.
After six years, six albums, and countless tours, Kidwell is retiring Cex to concentrate full-time on Sand Cats. He hopes to release the final Cex album, Actual Fucking, in September. “There’s going to be more records that I am a part of and that come out of my brain, but they’re called Sand Cats records now,” Kidwell says. “And they’re records that are me working with Roby but working with the same intensity and the same goals.
“With Sand Cats, we get a chance to do something more positive and stronger and more ambitious and more ferocious,” he continues. “It’s not like I will be locking Cex into a vault from which it can never ever return. But I am definitely not trying to divide my time and my focus.”
But Kidwell’s focus has always been divided to the point where it’s sometimes hard to imagine that he even has one. He’s worked with a small army of collaborators, but hardly ever for longer than one tour. He’s spun through more styles in his first seven years as an artist than David Bowie did in his first 15. He plays with his public persona like a kid with a Mr. Potato Head, always adding and removing new pieces, making it virtually unrecognizable from one year to the next, and this constant shifting has made him a fascinating figure. If any one person can keep up with this invariable flux, it’s Newton, a woman who seems so similar to Kidwell that they could almost be twins.
Sand Cats isn’t Kidwell’s first band. Throughout attending Baltimore County’s Dulaney High School he played in a number of anarchic, spazzy emo bands such as the Idea Men and Day of Man as Man, usually at illegal all-ages spaces. “Going to a show was like going to Oz, seeing all these different smelly weird people and crazy freaks,” Kidwell remembers. “If you’re 14 and you hate all the kids you go to school with—there’s nobody who wants to be weird there—it’s like finding this whole invisible magic world behind a curtain.”
Day of Man as Man, Kidwell’s last band, broke up in 1998, and he decided that he was finished with bands. “It was too much of a hassle to deal with other people’s lives,” he says. “I just wanted to go to shows and freak out, and I also wanted to make records. And it was easier to make records by myself than with a band.”
Kidwell had recently fallen in love with the so-called intelligent dance music of artists such as Aphex Twin, but he knew that most IDM artists never did much beyond staring at their laptop screens onstage. So he hoped to translate his melodic, introspective electronic music into the explosive live shows of his previous bands. “I felt like there was this opening, this huge place where I could make this music, perform it any way, produce it any way,” he says.
Thus Cex was born. After releasing a few CD-Rs, Kidwell hooked up with another young electronic maverick, the California-based laptop terrorist Kid606, forming a new indie label, Tigerbeat6 Records, and touring the East Coast together in 1999. Kidwell was unhappy with the tour, both with the audience (“The crowds were all real weird”) and with his own laptop-based live show (“I thought it was boring”).
After the tour, Kidwell started college, studying fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University. He also joined a campus-based improv comedy group, and soon incorporated that experience into his live show. “I’d been in these bands that were all about screaming and going ballistic, and I didn’t know how to do that with the laptop at that point,” Kidwell says. “But then when I started doing improv, I realized that I could go out and riff on the audience. I just talked to them and became sort of a weird improv stand-up.”
Simultaneously, he found another secret weapon to set his live show apart: hip-hop. “[Hip-hop] was what I was listening to at the time,” Kidwell says. “It was the most exciting music. Suddenly Timbaland was making the best beats of anybody, and they’re on the radio.”
Between late 1999 and 2001, Kidwell released his first two Cex albums, the pastoral, introspective Role Model and Oops I Did It Again. But as introverted as his records were, his live show had become a glorious mess of utilitarian booty-raps and spastic, self-conscious comedy. Kidwell began receiving national attention, getting covered in Rolling Stone and opening for bands such as Death Cab for Cutie on tour. But the party didn’t stay fun.
On the road Kidwell spent long hours in his station wagon alone with his thoughts. “Even through this period of wanting to have fun all the time, I never stopped being a depressive person,” Kidwell says. “Fun has done what it could do. I was touring more, and I was in my own head more.”
In 2002, Kidwell released the straight-rap Tall, Dark and Handcuffed and started to tone down the humor onstage. Increasingly, the strain of constant touring began to weigh on him. “When shows didn’t go well, I beat the hell out of myself about it and felt that it was my fault,” he says. “I had all these intense, over-the-top, excruciating views about music, fascist views about how music should be and how musicians should be, and I needed to be so hard on myself.”
Kidwell had found himself becoming more and more distant from his friends in Baltimore, and he broke up with his longtime girlfriend. “I didn’t know what I could do other than devote every moment of my life to [my] career,” he says. “And that was the point where I was like, Well, I fucked up everything in my life here—I have to move.”
Kidwell relocated to Oakland, Calif., in December 2002 with a few friends, where he released a fragile electronic emo-folk album, Being Ridden, recorded in his last days in Baltimore. He also completed a harsh, clanging gothic-industrial album called Maryland Mansions, which was heavily indebted to Nine Inch Nails. (“I was trying to make Broken,” he admits.) And he went on tour as the opening act for Death Cab leader Ben Gibbard’s emo-synthpop side project the Postal Service.
The tour was an unexpectedly huge success, selling out large clubs across the country. “I’d been playing these shows for hundreds of people, and it’s just a fact of the world that I’ve learned, that [in] any group of 1,200 people, unless you’re in Europe at some giant festival, 800 people aren’t going to give a shit if you don’t have drums,” he says.
In hope of reaching a wider audience, Kidwell moved back to Baltimore late in 2003 to do something he hadn’t done since high school: start a band. He recorded a few songs with Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn and former Dismemberment Plan members Jason Caddell and Eric Axelson. “It was supposed to be the Postal Service for tough people,” Kidwell says. “After two days of doing that, I listened to the songs again, and I was like, ‘I don’t like them anymore.’” Kidwell let the project fall by the wayside, which he has since regretted.
He started touring again, experimenting with live instruments for the first time since he’d begun performing as Cex. He toured with his friend Craig Jakubowski drumming, playing droney, depressed instrumental music. It was a bold move but not a savvy one; those shows were the most distant and dull of Kidwell’s career. Later, he toured with the Portland, Ore., krautrock duo Nice Nice as his backing band, even moving to Portland with them for a time. On the Nice Nice tour, Kidwell’s van broke down for five days in Tucumcari, N.M., where Kidwell and Nice Nice began work on what would become the final Cex album, Actual Fucking. They would improvise long instrumental pieces, and then Kidwell would rework the best parts on his computer, constantly changing the arrangements. Kidwell worked for more than a year on the album with a number of different musicians.
On Valentine’s Day 2004, Kidwell was in Chicago visiting friends when he met Newton, then a member of the postpunk band Milemarker. Kidwell soon moved to Chicago to housesit for Newton while she toured with the band Weather, and they were married by the end of the summer. Kidwell is uncharacteristically elusive when discussing his marriage, saying only, “When we came back [from touring], we decided, ‘Hey, we should get married.’”
Before the wedding, Kidwell went on tour with Aloha drummer Cale Parks and members of the band Make Believe backing him up. The songs that Kidwell was developing for Actual Fucking took shape, building from swirling tribal percussion, melting atmospherics, and dissonant synth blurts into towering, psychedelic monsters, probably the best music he has ever made. Newton, Parks, and Make Believe leader Tim Kinsella all became contributors to Actual Fucking. Around this time, Kidwell also recorded an EP called Know Doubt, blending his vocals and electronics with live instrumentation from Parks and Newton.
This past April, Kidwell and Newton moved to Baltimore, starting Sand Cats after they settled in Hampden. The band is a work in progress; it probably won’t much resemble the band’s first show for long, since they’ve decided to write songs instead of relying on improvisation. Kidwell has never collaborated musically with the same people for long, but Kidwell and Newton seem to share sensibilities; she is six years older than he is, but the two are close to the point of finishing each other’s sentences. They even look alike—same wild sandy hair, same bronzed skin, same tattoo of twin tiger slashes on the forearm.
They both share the idea of Sand Cats as a solo project for two people. “I was in Milemarker doing a collaborative band, but at the same time I was doing solo work making puppet shows where I’m building everything and writing everything and deciding the way the music works,” Newton says. “So I have certain control issues where I enjoy being in a solo position.”
And with a musical and life partner embracing the same sort of off-kilter enthusiasm, it’s easy to imagine Kidwell’s involvement with Sand Cats surviving the long haul—however many changes they morph through. “Hopefully we can start from this point and build a catalog of works that will work forever,” Kidwell says. “Eventually, I think Sand Cats will be a new archetype of band, not just in the instruments that it has but in that it’s a solo project of two people, doing personal things and real things.”
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