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December 1, 2003

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“I want to find a prescription or wormhole that will shed the jaded parts of my life,” declares Rjyan Kidwell. “I don’t want to be over anything. I want everything to be new. I’m kind of, I don’t know, naïve may be the word.”

Kidwell, or Cex as his fans know him, rarely sits around long enough to get bored, yet alone jaded with anything. The singer/programmer/producer/one-man-extravaganza’s latest, Maryland Mansions (2003, Jade Tree), takes off from his previous schizophrenic track record of heavy-handed IDM, nods toward old-school hip-hop and breakbeat-filled electronics to explore a mix of industrial gristle, emo’s heart-on-sleeve moping, electronic beats and Kidwell’s always-moving artistic sensibilities and it delivers some of the strongest cuts in the youngster’s catalog. “Stop Eating” is a dense post-industrial noise fest in which Kidwell’s vocals billow black, angry smoke onto an already gloriously polluted aural landscape. Kidwell makes a nod to the terminally depressed Bright Eyes on “My Head,” that matches a crushing, aching acoustic guitar figure above thunky beats, and “Kill Me” is a squirming techno/industrial number that blurs the lines between sex and violence as Kidwell loops down the same spiral as Trent Reznor.

Even by Kidwell’s scattershot track record, it’s a surprise. Maryland Mansions checks rock influences as heavily as Cex’s favored electronic and hip-hop, a direction few would have guessed he’d take. Of course, throwing curveballs has been Cex’s modus operandi for years: Early records like Role Model (2000, Tigerbeat6) and Shift-Minus (1999, Underscore) dabbled with dance music that checked IDM mainstay Aphex Twin just as easily as The Dismemberment Plan. Oops I Did it Again (2001, Tigerbeat6) took Cex away from the somber world of dance techno into a realm of playful, if not exactly giddy, techno, while last year’s Tall Dark and Handcuffed revisited classic hip-hop that was sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes serious in its adoration of ’80s rappers.

“People can look at me and go ‘Hey dude, you’re not a genius and you admit it,’” Kidwell says. “‘You’re not even that talented naturally and you admit it. If you don’t do something long enough, how can it be as good as you can get it? You’ve got to work at your craft! You’ve got to get that samurai sword out in your back yard and hack away with it every day if you want to be the master ninja. You keep bouncing from shit to shit so you’ll never have to actually be good. You’ll have an excuse.’ I don’t know exactly what to say to that argument. It’s one that’s in my head a lot. Is all my talk of boundaries and daring and unpredictability and stuff, is it just a weird cover? I guess I don’t have an answer for that. That’s how I am in my life. I move around a lot. I’m in constant motion. I’m really, really anxious if I’m not doing something that I feel is productive at all times. Since I haven’t really solved that problem in my life, I don’t really know how to deal with it in music.

“A lot of music critics think that when somebody does too many things, it’s confusing to the average music listener,” he continues. “Totally not. It’s like when you’re friends with somebody you go ‘Hey, you’re acting differently today! What’s up? Our friendship is on the line! I don’t know if I can be around you with this new mood. You didn’t make the same jokes that you did yesterday.’ Nobody fires their friends for that reason. I always wanted to be more like a friend than some kind of towering god that’s incapable of making the wrong decision with my music.”

Maybe it’s that sense of mortality that’s made Cex’s records so accessible; maybe it’s his burning desire to stave off the cynicism that’s almost part and parcel with underground music hipness that does it. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Really, it doesn’t matter, as Maryland Mansions screams as the excitement of living life and loving music collide in a post-industrial, post-punk and post-dance world that has no time for the rules and regulations of the indie-rock status quo. Disdain for the musical rank and file marks Kidwell’s biggest artistic step forward. While previous albums bounced from style to style with only a few nods toward mixing one genre’s peanut butter with another’s chocolate. Maryland Mansions, however, does that. Rather than following in the steps of Aphex Twin, Kid Koala or Kool Keith, Cex breaks from the pack to forge a sound that, while carrying overtones of its predecessors, jams with a flavor that’s pure Cex.

Nevertheless, revolutions aren’t borne of sound alone – they’re a matter of heart more than mind. Anyone can flip a new sound out, but Kidwell goes one step farther, and chews up the underground-rock mentality with revolutionary fervor. Where his contemporaries routinely perform an elaborate dance to avoid the inevitable knee-jerk accusations of selling out, Kidwell knows that artistic integrity has nothing to do with the size or a royalty check or actually liking attention, Cex calls attention to himself. He’d rather flaunt an arm full of Rolex watches than some indie-nerd’s misplaced sense of credibility. In fact, the whole notion of the reluctant rock star, Kidwell says, is a steaming pile laid by musicians who can’t come to terms with their need for gratification.

“I guess the worst part of musicians is they are attention seekers in denial,” he complains. “When you meet some kind of drama king who’s got really no hustle, he’s not in a band or he has a hustle and it’s a really shitty one and it’s obviously shitty, like he’s working on a record and he’s never played a show or he’s in some shitty play or whatever. He’s an attention seeker and he wants to be loved and validated. He knows it or at the very least, he doesn’t actively deny it. A lot of musicians, if you’re getting on stage and you’re putting out records for people to spend money on, I don’t care how much you can look at your shoes in interviews and say how much you hate attention, those aren’t the actions of someone who wants to be left alone. It’s way easier not to make a record and release it and tour than to do those things.”

“That’s the thing that I think is really retarded. When someone who is living the lifestyle and putting some effort into getting attention for what they do and certainly not stopping someone else from paying attention to them or not stopping the label from calling attention to the record so that people can hear it, then sit in a chair and deny it. That’s the thing to me that’s more annoying than their regular-world counterpart is. It’s so insulting.”

Yes, it is, and Kidwell isn’t going to let himself become so jaded as to sink into the hipster-doofus mentality. That disdain for the nuances of cool-guy behavior, and the not-so-subtle ways it plays out in underground music, make Cex a bit of a renegade. If his genre-hopping and lack of direction could annoy the hipsters, his dedication to destroying the rules of the underground he inhabits might just make him Public Enemy No. 1 at the local rock club. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Part of me is really averse to hipsters and is really afraid that I am one,” Kidwell admits. “I will totally try to have no boundaries. I purposefully and willfully do things that people wouldn’t want me to do or expect me to do, just to prove that it’s possible. Sometimes it feels like there’s invisible, enclosed rules. There’s no rules at all. To travel in a world of underground rock, underground hip-hop and underground electronic where the word ‘experimental’ is used so much, it seems like people, by and large 90 percent of the time or more, play it pretty safe. You get something like an Aesop Rock album or a Prefuse 73 album, it’s like ‘This is experimental hip-hop, experimental electronic!’ I don’t know what experiment is being done! This album sounds exactly like I thought it would sound.”

In fact, up until Maryland Mansions the Baltimore-based producer’s put as much into writing music that comments upon other music as forging his own road. Cex’s latest, however, spurns the inevitable serpent-eating-its-own-tail routine of the reactionary musician for a route that turns his songwriting eye on issues that are more important: namely, commentary that focuses on the real world instead of the recorded one.

It hasn’t been an easy task for Kidwell, however. As his chaotic musical trajectory suggests, Kidwell’s as enthusiastic about keeping up with music as he is about making his own. Because of that, he’s as embroiled in the ongoing dialogue about popular culture. So much so, actually, he’s had to curtail his fandom activities in order to keep his musical eyes on the prize.

“I’ve been trying to go on a media diet, where I wasn’t going to read as many reviews or articles about music that I knew were going to make me steamed up afterward. I would read certain things and all I’d want to do is write a jam to refute what I’d just read. It’s so lame! I did an album that was like that, Tall Dark and Handcuffed, which is almost entirely direct statements about what I thought about music. I’ve made a real effort to stop doing that. Don’t make music about music! If there’s some kind of axiom or natural law that I want to declare, I’m going to have to declare it by convincing stories. I’d rather write fiction than write manifestos. Who reads manifestos? They’re boring. I’ve tried to make my music more like fiction books.”

Enthusiastic music fans, Cex may be the man you’ve been looking for; jaded hipsters, however, had best scurry back to the shelter of pompous attitudes – Cex’s personally set guidelines probably align him with the eager more so than the cynical.

“I try to never be a dickhead, which is a pretty good rule,” he says. “If you’re not a dickhead, it will work out.”

It’s working out well indeed.


Matt Schild