- Once a solo artist, Rjyan Kidwell (left) now has multiple Cex partners.
It's spelled C-E-X, but it's pronounced sex, as suggested by the title of the group's new disc, Actual Fucking. Before leader Rjyan (pronounced "Ryan") Kidwell established Cex as a group activity, it was something he did alone in his bedroom, staring at a computer. At the dawn of the 21st century, as a wiry teenage blogger, he helped establish the noisy, computer-driven, dubiously dubbed IDM genre (short for "Intelligent Dance Music") as a founder of underground label Tigerbeat6. Now, many musical styles, anti-fashion phases, and high-profile collaborators later, he's leading a band and finally making music you can really dance to.
"I feel that the place this country is at -- and the place people's heads are at - there should be some really awesome raves going on," says Kidwell, breaking in a new cell phone from his Baltimore home. "And we haven't really managed to put them together yet. The dance thing has gotten ubiquitous -- everybody's a DJ. But these bar dance parties are just the first step. The rave is the ultimate. If people want to have a cultural movement toward dancing, then we need to get back to the gigantic illegal warehouse full of people who are dressing like absolute lunatics and listening to music that is insanely loud and has tons of low end. And beyond."
As Kidwell has grown from suburban tech-head and hip-hop enthusiast to roving entertainment buccaneer, he's done as much to alienate fans as attract them, never making the same album twice or even putting on the same show twice. After his IDM period, Kidwell worked his way through a variety of fringe dance and hip-hop guises: noisy electronic glitch-hop, deconstructive meta-rap, and goth-tinged alt-hop. Years before Atlanta crunk kings made the grill a hip-hop fashion must-have, Kidwell sported the gilded letters C, E, and X on his front teeth, wowing indie-venue hipster crowds as a gold-grilled master of ceremonies. Cex's solo ride culminated in a move to San Francisco, where he seemed poised to gain a marquee spot in the indie-rap boom. It didn't exactly work out.
"I had a great time, but I felt like an alien," says the hyper-articulate Kidwell, reflecting on the promised land. "It was an East Coast-West Coast culture shock. People on the West Coast are so chill and willing to be positive about things. I grew up in a place where making music was more confrontational. There, letting your freak flag fly was being proud of it. And in Baltimore, the flag is parked on top of a pirate ship that's coming down the street, tossing cannonballs out on people's head."
The jarring experience translated into Kidwell's dark 2003 Maryland Mansions LP. He returned East, moving back to Baltimore, bouncing to Chicago, and setting south once again for Maryland, leaving a string of esoteric releases behind him. Humorously billing himself as "the No. 1 entertainer" and often making good on the boast, he toured with indie-rock sensations such as Death Cab for Cutie, the Postal Service, and Super Furry Animals. Live Cex shows always earned raves, but the albums left critics tsking and fans shaking their heads. Kidwell says he wants to make a living with his music, but he's never wanted to be a major recording artist.
"This is what I do, personally, to live my life and get what I want and have my wishes fulfilled," he says, explaining the Cex drive. "That's what Cex is about -- not making contributions to the canon of a certain genre or a certain version of what's important in music history. I'm looking to have an adventure, to get things off my chest."
As with actual sex, it's better with good company. Traveling in rock circles, Kidwell met Roby Newton of multimedia collective Milemarker, who became his bandmate and wife. They reinvented Cex as a collaborative project, rounding out its core trio with Cale Parks of Aloha and Joan of Arc. Over a year in the making, Actual Fucking also features members of Dismemberment Plan, Nice Nice, and Love of Everything. The sixth Cex record is the most eclectic, but least fragmented.
A 40-minute electro-tribal groove, the disc flows like a slow-burning tantric shag. Newton warbles primally in "Denton," a sensuous meander as visceral as Björk's best. "Ybor City" chases a mocking answering-machine message with static and an acoustic-guitar interlude. In the percolating seven-minute "Los Angeles," Kidwell syncopates electronic tones, showering the track with sparks. A seasoned veteran at the age of 25, the onetime bedroom rapper now has a deeper voice to go with his wild facial hair, and he raps, speaks, sings, harmonizes, and writes, putting the primitive loincloth-wearing drive back in Cex.
"There are so many unspoken things that reverberate in my skull," says Kidwell. "And there's not an appropriate place in conversation for it. It's important to me, it's an ongoing project, to speak about sex and ass and fucking in ways that aren't shielded in humor or shame. To me, this record is about getting blunt and accepting things that I like."
All the conceptual material doesn't obscure Cex's main objective -- getting a groove on. It's something new for Cex, as Kidwell, Newton, and Parks are playing live as a percussion-heavy trio, and for the first time in his career, Kidwell is performing songs from his current album.
"This tour is a new experiment, because the last dozen tours, I've been going out doing new material. And a lot of people say . . .," Kidwell adopts a craggy Poindexter voice, ". . . 'That's not the way a band is supposed to function.' To me, that's the goal for someone who wants to convert a bunch of people to their fan base, to build this army that's supposed to lead you to the giant record.
"To me, if people can't handle the switch, if they can't find the string that unites between the rap and the tribal jam stuff and anything else I've done, then that's not a person that I'm worried about having a relationship with. This tour, we are doing songs from the new record. But it's all-new versions. Hopefully, there'll be a lot of blood coming out of a lot of ears."