Animal Spirit: Sand Cats

February 15, 2006
Ask an independent musician "What type of music do you play?" and you're liable to get a stone-faced stare. Describing their own music is no man's land for most musicians. For restless experimenters like Sand Cats--former Milemarker member Roby Newton and Cex himself, Rjyan Kidwell, now married to each other and living in Baltimore--the question should be temporal. Their desire for aural transgression sends them through style changes like "J.T. Leroy" through impersonators. Sand Cats scrawl over the lines where the term "type of music" appears. Their answer might go more like "Which year?"

Kidwell and Newton met in Chicago at a band practice. Newton had moved from Chapel Hill as a member of hardcore burners Milemarker. Her handmade puppets often marked protests and art events both here and in the Northeast. She has contributed to fashion and burlesque shows and arranged lighting and visual art in collaboration with whatever musical project she was working with (most recently with the group Weather). Newton and Kidwell also did a children's puppet show that, she says, "starred a mole named Donut and a worm named Boris."

As the chameleon-like persona Cex, Kidwell morphed his musical output from the outset--Aphex Twin minimal electronic artist to gold-fronted and goggled hip-hopper to NIN spook-core. He has now reinvented Cex as a full band with Newton. His Cex identity began in high school in Baltimore when he felt limited by playing with ordinary rock bands.

Kidwell and Newton describe Sand Cats as a "solo group for two people." Together, their energy runs from crazed, speedy arrhythmia to the comforting ebb and flow of kindred spirits. They constantly seem to be screaming "Wake up," yanking blankets from docile laps as a matter of course.

Newton says kung-fu movies are a source of inspiration: "So visually rich with fantastic costuming and sets, the story of the hero overcoming great obstacles. It resonates with the current state of affairs in the U.S. How can people gain the power necessary to change the way our government conducts its business? We all need to visualize ourselves as heroes capable of seemingly impossible feats."

Astute, ever curious and somewhat fearless, both Newton and Kidwell decided to battle repetition via their freeform Sand Cats. The first demo oozed and trickled in turns of looped vocals, backward masking and punctured beats. "Imagine a band with Jaco on bass and Jimi ... on bass," they say, slyly describing a band that they have revamped from noise improv jam to song-based material.

They both know Carrboro, too--Kidwell from his time spent at Cat's Cradle and Go! scaring the kids out of their Abercrombies in opening slots for Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, Newton from her past here as activist, visual artist and provocateur in bands at many house parties. "For me, it means seeing a lot of old friends and being overtaken by a flood of memories," Newton says. "I walk around and marvel at the changes that have happened around town and drop by the Skylight Exchange for a cup of coffee with Dennis."

Their joint creative process now sounds less confrontational, but just as pensive.

"The typical moment is probably a discussion of a particular loop that we're listening to and how it relates to the last 30 to 60 years of music," says Newton, now on the band's first tour. "And then the interruption of that discussion by one of our cats." x

 

Sand Cats plays at Reservoir (formerly Go Studios, Room 4), Thursday, Feb. 16 with Lexie Mountain. The show is free and starts at 10 p.m.

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