When guitarist Drew James describes Kid Stardust as “survivors,” it’s not overdramatic hyperbole. James’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, vocalist Chrissy von Savoye’s cervical cancer diagnosis and bassist Ryan Hickman’s brain tumor earned them the designation. In a non-lethal context, drummer Rick Henry struggles daily with the intense challenges of raising an autistic child.
“I think we’re all tough as fuck,” von Savoye says.
Kid Stardust’s roots began in New Jersey. Von Savoye’s previous band was trying out rhythm guitarists and James, a non-rhythm player, nailed the audition. Von Savoye and James escalated from bandmates to soulmates, and after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, they relocated to the unknown wilds of Greater Cincinnati.
“Jersey is fucking expensive,” native Californian von Savoye says. “We thought, ‘We’re working to survive, let’s move somewhere we can cut our living expenses in half and have more time and energy to dedicate to music.’”
Naturally, von Savoye and New York native James recognized the benefit of the metropolitan areas within driving distance of Cincinnati. Their gig opportunities were thinner in New Jersey.
“We had Brooklyn, Philly and New Brunswick,” James says. “In Brooklyn every night, there’s 100 bands, and good bands too. How are you going to stand out? Moving here just seemed like a great idea.”
Von Savoye’s vocal style, rooted in her childhood exposure to Janis Joplin, nods to Chrissie Hynde and Johnette Napolitano. James, an unconventional guitarist who blends power, atmosphere and invention, claims influences like Brainiac, Deerhoof and Les Savy Fav. Von Savoye and James combed Craigslist for like-minded musicians, posting personal influences like Yo La Tengo, Wire, Richard Hell & the Voidoids and Sebadoh. Local Matt Hemingway responded, became the new band’s first drummer and set the bar for subsequent searches.
“In Jersey, the bands we met, we were family,” von Savoye says. “It was important to Drew and I to meet people we felt a kinship with — more important than technical skills.”
Hemingway left to concentrate on other projects, but not before introducing Hickman to the band. A veteran of numerous Cincinnati bands and current bassist for Two Inch Winky, Hickman brought a new perspective to Kid Stardust.
After six drummers, Henry became perhaps the unlikeliest yet best candidate of all. Another local veteran, Henry’s experience consisted of playing guitar and bass; he’d acquired a drum kit a year and a half before auditioning for Kid Stardust.
“I’ve embraced the whole drumming thing. I enjoy the craft of getting it perfect,” Henry says. “Above anything, I just want to be an interesting drummer. When I listen to bands and the drummer’s boring, I hate that. I want somebody who does weird fills and brings more in.”
With Kid Stardust’s dream lineup settled, it was time to cue adversity. First, von Savoye and James ended their relationship after a long period of denial.
“We were afraid to walk away from this music,” von Savoye says. “We kept (the personal split) to ourselves, then we sat ‘the kids’ down. We said, ‘It’s not going to be weird, it’s cool.’ And Ryan said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be weird. Good thing I like weird, but it’s going to be weird until it’s not weird anymore.’ It got weird and bad. I quit the band for a while, but we’re making it work. For me this has been like a spiritual evolution because I was taught to run. I went to 2-3 schools a year, from California to the Netherlands. My mother taught me when things fall apart, move away. I break up with someone and move across the country. This is the first time I’ve had to face a part of myself that I might otherwise not want to look at. I’ve probably grown more in the last six months than I ever have in my life.”
“Chrissy and I have been petty, nasty and nice and all the normal shit after a relationship,” James says. “But we’ve always wanted to do this band, and we continue to want to do this band. At the peak of not liking each other, if someone had asked, ‘Do you want to make music with anyone else?’ I would have said, ‘No.’ If we’re going to suffer through this, it’s going to be worth it.”
In that tumultuous shadow, Kid Stardust recorded with artist/producer Steve Wethington. The sessions were good, but lacked something significant.
“It was smaller, a little flat and pretty,” von Savoye says. “I think that’s the assumption when you have a female vocalist.”
Perhaps fortuitously, as Wethington and the band were in final mixes, his computer crashed. Rather than combing through back-up files, they decided to re-record everything. Wethington then attended a Kid Stardust show, inspiring a new perspective for documenting the band’s studio performance.
The second time was the charm. Wethington captured the visceral essence of Kid Stardust’s melodic Shoegaze, Pop sensibilities and Art Rock aesthetics. Just as importantly, the band channeled its destructive internal energy into a passionate positivity, and von Savoye and James refashioned their personal relationship into a stronger band structure, assuring Kid Stardust’s long-term future with plans for more out of town shows and perhaps a full-length release this year.
That drive is evident in the band’s name. Taken from a Charles Bukowski short story, ex-boxer Kid Stardust works in a meatpacking plant and is ultimately beaten down by the factory’s young turks. The quartet christened itself in tribute to the vanquished hero’s perseverance.
“Defeated again by the playground of life,” von Savoye says. “We keep getting defeated but we stand up, dust ourselves off and go at it again.”
“We’re going to keep playing original music,” says James. “We all have jobs and take care of ourselves, but if not for this, that would be unbearable.”