"She was here for a couple weeks," Bidwell explains, clutching a worn copy of the guidebook Stairway Walks in San Francisco. "We would take one or two of these [tours] a day. They were going through parts of the city I didn't even know existed -- all these hidden parks and neighborhoods. When she left, I kept doing them by myself."
Bidwell -- with his curly black hair, bemused eyes, and pencil-thin mustache -- looks more like a villain from a vaudeville play than the kind of guy you'd expect to find traipsing down canopied pathways, happily pointing out a verdant green space where he'd seen kids playing after Christmas.
One of the most imaginative lyricists in the Bay Area, Bidwell is known for packing each of his short songs with a semester's reading list worth of historical references, geographic coordinates, and oddball characters. In person, though, the songwriter has none of the manic storyteller about him. He talks carefully, at pace with our footfalls, ambling as if ready to double back when the path becomes less sure.
This tentative quality makes the circuitous stairways of San Francisco a natural meeting place, as well as an apt metaphor for the Ral Partha experience. With a discography spread along the less-traveled roads of Bay Area indie folk-rock, Chad Bidwell walks a fine line between the exhilaratingly beautiful and the utterly impenetrable. Like the back-alley stairways we climb, it's easy enough to wander through Ral Partha's music, content to take in the sights. But to really understand any of it, you need a map.
First things first: The Ral Partha moniker is a marriage of a company that makes lead figurines for Dungeons & Dragons, and Pierre Vogelbacher, a childhood friend and tormentor of Bidwell's.
The impressively unmemorable name -- like most of Bidwell's early recordings -- was never meant for public consumption. When he began crafting his songs almost a decade ago, his audience was as minuscule as it was unenthusiastic.
"My girlfriend at the time would call me up and say, 'What are you doing? I'm embarrassed for you. You need to stop doing this,'" Bidwell says, laughing.
A computer programmer by trade, Bidwell persevered anyway, moussing his plain bowl-cut of a voice into a variety of styles, from Silver Jews baritone to Elliott Smith falsetto. The two constants throughout his early recordings -- released on his own label, Megalon -- were his spare acoustic-guitar playing and his literate turns of phrase.
On his 2001 debut full-length, The More Nice Fey Elven Gnomes Are Hiding in My Toilet Again, his use of language stole the show completely, often at the expense of sound quality and flub-free takes. Much of his lackadaisical recording ethic at the time, Bidwell admits, was just a way to avoid facing the shortcomings of a voice he never felt quite comfortable with.
"It was always kind of embarrassing to continue to sing over and over these parts and always be off-key," Bidwell says. "It was just like, "Let's just go through it -- it doesn't matter because I'm never going to get this right.'"
Despite the demo-y sound of Elven Gnomes, the songs found an enthusiastic audience, especially among a handful of San Francisco musicians. David Kesler of Thee More Shallows, was taken by the vividness of Bidwell's imagery, and the effortless way he packed a single song with enough perfect lines for a whole album. "If there was an indie rhyming competition, Chad would destroy everybody," Kesler says via phone. "I've seen him reel off reams of lyrics off the top of his head; it's a natural gift for him. You just don't see that very often."
Elven Gnomes also went over well in England. London's Monotreme Records released the subsequent Whistle Like You Mean It EP in 2001, and hoped to put out a single immediately afterwards. But the international market would have to wait: What started out as a quick session at Scott Solter's 15th Street Studio for "Luck on Every Finger" soon grew into an EP, which then -- with the help of a half-dozen guest musicians, including the Cubby Creatures' Jason Gonzales, Court & Spark's Wendy Allen, and Kesler and his bandmate Tadas Kisielius -- evolved into a full album.
Under Solter's direction, the resulting Kite Vs. Obelisk LP became the sonically adventurous record Bidwell had never had the patience to make. The music -- fleshed out with achy bits of pedal steel, quavery tremoloed electric guitars, sighs of trumpet, and strange analog effects -- rings with the goofy prog of Wowee Zowee-era Pavement. Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel will also hear traces of Jeff Mangum's bewildered, possessed poetics on songs like "Jasper Downs, III," and there's even a touch of Creedence's classic-rock riffage on "Wrong Bike."
For these new tracks, Bidwell's voice finally settled into a shape he could live with. Similar to the conversational altfolkie Simon Joyner, Bidwell sang in a simple and malleable fashion, swinging easily between confessionally sweet and stormily dramatic.
With the changes in his vocals came a new, more cinematic approach to his lyric writing. While the songs on Elven Gnomes feel like a collection of great lines bound together by chord changes, Kite Vs. Obelisk has the colorful coherence of an hour-long movie, broken down into 13 three-minute acts. The CD's cast includes a Russian coup leader who jovially muses, "I ripped up all the pavement with my tank treads/ As I ran to your bed from what was once called Stalingrad." On "Red Hot Tugboat" the love-struck narrator schemes to blow up a bridge with an explosive-laden cargo ship, sighing, "I got a nursing degree in the mountains/ While you were off serving a seven-year sentence."
And yet, despite the myriad of fanciful characters and plots, despite the polyphony of voices and otherworldly visions, Bidwell says the songs on Kite Vs. Obelisk all point to a single real-world person: his ex-girlfriend of six months ago.
"It was a very difficult relationship at times," says Bidwell. "And it was probably one of the most amazing relationships I've ever been involved in. It kind of forced me to face some things about my personality that I was not sure about."
The questions raised by the romance -- about career and sexuality and anger and identity -- worked their way into each of the album's tracks, though it takes a half-mile of explanation on Chad's part to start spotting them behind their historical guises.
"I was writing these songs about situations in books that I was reading and about historical situations, but also writing from the perspective of personal experience," Bidwell explains. "And so it would be about, say, a Russian official plotting a coup against Gorbachev in the early '90s, but it would also be about me and this person."
With Bidwell's ex-girlfriend in mind, listening to Kite Vs. Obelisk becomes a sort of Where's Waldo? for the indie set, as audiences try to spot the personal demon that spawned enigmatic titles like "Walking a Sickly Bobcat South of Your Cedar Infested Estate."
"The whole song is about me in this relationship with this person, spending a lot of time with her, but her mind is elsewhere, and I'm focused on trying to get her attention," Chad explains.
Bobcats aside, Bidwell is reluctant to give up all the secrets of Kite Vs. Obelisk. His desire to retain some of the sense of mystery has kept him from including a lyric sheet, despite the fact that he's obviously proud of his writing.
"It may have something to do with listening to a lot of REM growing up, and having no idea what Michael Stipe was saying," Bidwell says, smiling. "And over the years, bit by bit, figuring out what the lyrics are. ... I feel like it's the duty of whoever is listening to figure out what's going on."
Bidwell's misgivings about revealing too much are probably all for the best. Like the huffing climb up and down a city's hidden stairwells, Ral Partha Vogelbacher is best discovered through circumnavigation and unhurried exploration. Kite Vs. Obelisk -- as with most satisfying adventures -- takes its time getting where it's going, doling out postcard-perfect views in a series of indelible glimpses.