This year, we’ll be spotlighting a prominent Minnesota musician or band each month with our new Artist of the Month feature. You’ll be able to hear a variety of songs from throughout the artists’ career on both the Local Current stream and the Local Show, and you can read more about the artists’ history and their role in the community right here on the Local Current Blog. Our local artist of the month for March is 12 Rods.
Bio: 12 Rods were a music nerd’s dream and an A&R man’s nightmare. The band’s sound was an indescribable mess of snotty prog, emotive synth-pop, psych, shoegaze and hypersexed space age R&B. Got it? I’m not so sure that I did. There… I said it. I did not fully “get” 12 Rods when they were still a working band. Whew! I feel much better now. Thank you for letting me share that with you. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone.
Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you’d hoped they would. Life is completely unpredictable at best, and chaos reigns supreme. No one knows this better than the members of 12 Rods. The band’s 12-year career may as well have been a master class on the subject “Not Getting What You Want (Or Thought You Might Get) 5001.” In 2004, years of close calls and gut-wrenching critical pot shots finally caught up to them and they threw in the towel. 12 Rods were not built to last. What they left behind was a progressive body of work—unquestionably earnest art-rock for people of all shapes and sizes. A whole catalog of songs sitting patiently and waiting for us to catch up and explore… whenever we are ready.
The first incarnation of 12 Rods took shape in May of 1992 while front-man Ryan Olcott was still a senior at Talawanda High School in Oxford, Ohio. Originally called Ryan’z Bihg Hed, the band assembled for the same purpose every high-school band assembles: to play the big party. Olcott, along with Matt Flynn, Daniel Perlin, drummer Christopher McGuire and Ryan’s older brother Ev (running sound at this point) made their maiden voyage at the now legendary “Field Fest 3”—some girl’s graduation party in her backyard. KFC was served. Ev, being the oldest and wisest of the crew, made the decision to document the event, and recorded the show on his boom box. The cassette became this incarnation of the band’s sole release. It was titled Helikopter Hundrid Dolurz. The band celebrated in fine form by immediately breaking up only to reform six months later with a slightly different line-up and a new name: 12 Rods.
In 1993, Ryan officially abandoned his collegiate pursuits to return to Oxford and create the demos for 12 Rods’ first album Bliss. The band then made the journey from Oxford up to Minneapolis to record the album at Metro Studios. The session yielded a collection of noisy, revved up, angular space rock, much of which was buried in reverb; screaming to be known yet, somehow, afraid to be seen. They released Bliss, sold a few hundred copies, and then broke up… again.
By 1995, McGuire and Olcott had fully relocated to Minneapolis. Ev had now joined the band, playing both guitar and keyboards. Matt Foust (Love-Cars) stepped in on bass and completed the lineup, which played their first show in March at the Purple Onion. The quartet continued to do shows and began work on what many consider their masterpiece, the Gay? EP.
Originally released in mid-’96, Gay? was Ryan Olcott and 12 Rod’s debutante ball. Forty-seven seconds into the opening track “Red,” four slashing high-hat blasts call for silence from the repetitious and noisy metallic drone. A guttural howl immediately punctuates the silence, the sound a man might make pinned under an overturned car while trying to lift himself free of the wreckage. It is accompanied by screaming feedback floating over an army of chugging guitars and bass. This swells for 12 bars, exploding into a wash of airy keyboards, more crushing, sludgy guitars, and a syncopated drum pattern that most skillful percussionists could only ever dream of replicating. And then, like a laser beam…
“Write a note to tell me how you feel,
’cause I’m both your friend and foe,
So don’t buy or sell or trade anything from me.”
Clearly audible, uncomfortably monotone and double-tracked just in case you thought they weren’t serious, Ryan Olcott came blasting out of hiding. Gay? Without question.
“A lot of people confuse musical dynamics with having their distortion pedal on or off,” said drummer Christopher McGuire in November 1995 to the Star Tribune. “We know what the climax of each song is, so we try to find an interesting way to arrive at it. We’re careful about what part of a song should just lie there and digest a while, and what part should knock you back a bit.”
With Gay?, 12 Rods had not only revealed that they’d created a sound that was unique conceptually; they had announced their arrival in a colossal way. They showed up at the new high school the week of the big game, suited up as a walk-on, subbed in when the star quarterback got hurt, won the game setting new state single game passing and rushing records respectively, beat up that pesky bully in the parking lot afterward, and then bedded the prom queen.
Gay? immediately turned heads. It caught the attention of fledgling internet music criticism publication Pitchfork. Legend has it that founder Ryan Schreiber and former columnist Jason Josephes saw one of the band’s shows (Pitchfork was originally based in Minneapolis), picked up the new EP and promptly freaked out, awarding it a perfect 10.0. In the review, Josephes said “12 Rods is like everything and nothing, occupying a special nook in my head where music is wonderful and I believe in superheroes again.” The Pitchfork writers weren’t alone. The highly influential local alternative station REV105 put it in heavy rotation. Like sharks to a sinking cruise ship, labels smelled blood and began calling and making trips to Minneapolis to see the band, which was now performing as a trio with a DAT machine after the departure of bassist Matt Foust.
By 1997, 12 Rods were officially the first American band signed to budding imprint V2, and were scheduled to perform at SXSW music festival in Austin, TX. From the outside, things looked beyond promising. The Magic 8-ball clearly indicated that all “signs point to yes.” However, the question that was asked, had yet to be revealed.
“I knew the day we signed that we were doomed,” Ryan would later tell City Pages. He was right. The SXSW show was a total disaster, complete with massive equipment failure and rumors of sabotage by another band on the bill. “From that point on it was hopeless. V2 nearly lost all interest in us.”
In October of 1997, the label re-released Gay? while the band took the time to slowly assemble their own studio and record their second full length Split Personalities. Ev and Ryan’s relationship with drummer Christopher McGuire was strained, making progress difficult. In addition to the internal conflict, the band was having trouble, both locally and nationally, as their relationship with V2 became more of a liability then an asset. Olcott recalled that “everyone in Minneapolis hated us because we were getting a little bit of success, and I don’t know if they thought we paid our dues. We were coy and subtle and it didn’t really translate. And Christopher turned people off, he turned us off. We were misrepresented for years because of that.”
Split Personalities was finally released two years after Gay? to mixed reviews and commercial indifference. One of the most favorable reviews was again published by Pitchfork, who championed the album giving it a 9.7 rating. Founder Ryan Schreiber wrote the review, exclaiming “for weeks you’ll eat, sleep and dream this album, whether you care to or not.” This was heavy praise from a member of an organization who would soon almost completely disown the band. After Split Personalities was released, bassist Bill Shaw joined 12 Rods, staying with the band until the bitter end in 2004.
In the two years that had passed since they signed to V2, 12 Rods once promising future now looked questionable at best. “We took a trip to New York and our manager took me aside and said, ‘If you want to save your career, you’d better write your single now.’ So I went back to Minneapolis and I was totally inspired and I made the demos for Separation Anxieties. I delivered them to V2 and they were all really stoked: ‘This is great. You delivered. You have five singles on this,’” Olcott told City Pages in 2004. Agreeing to use a producer on their third record, the band sent out the demos and waited to see who responded. Todd Rundgren was the first. A musician/songwriter/producer with more than a few hits to his name and plenty of cred, on paper Rundgren seemed like a perfect fit. Amidst mounting inner turmoil, the Rods made plans to travel to Hawaii for six weeks to record Separation Anxieties.
To say that the sessions for this record were disappointing for the band is a gross misrepresentation. For starters, the band was somewhat underwhelmed with Todd’s performance. Olcott told City Pages, “We all thought Todd was under-performing. He was the last person to show up at each session and the first one to leave. He didn’t care. He was just there to press record, read magazines and drink Foster’s. It was disheartening.” To make matters worse, the band’s relationship with drummer Christopher McGuire completely collapsed and it was decided that he would head back to Minnesota after only three weeks. Ev, Ryan and Bill soldiered on, finishing up recording in Hawaii and returning home defeated. The band was now broke, and the early mixes of Separation Anxieties were not at all what they had hoped for. “We thought he’d do some production and it’d blow my mind because he’s Todd Rundgren,” said Olcott. “He’d sprinkle the magic and we’d live happily ever after. But when it was done, we were the poster boys of major label failure.” The album was released in June of 2000. Pitchfork gave it a 2.0. Then McGuire quit the band. To complete the triumvirate of awful, V2 then dropped 12 Rods from its roster.
This is the point at which I will tell you that Separation Anxieties is unquestionably my favorite 12 Rods record and was my entry point to the band. To provide an even more telling point of reference, I should also confess that Don’t Tell A Soul is my favorite Replacements album. I also own every album E.L.O. ever made. I tend to prefer the rough edges smoothed out a bit. You feel me? But for some of the longtime Rods fans, this record was heresy. 12 Rods had been neutered. Todd Rundgren and V2 had wrecked their favorite band. Although I view this opinion as somewhat reactionary, I think I understand. 12 Rods’ music had always had strong hooks and memorable melodies, but they were not the star of the show. They had ridden in backseat while the band’s angular and experimental sonic assault drove the car. Many viewed this role reversal as a grade A, first-class sell out.
After Separation Anxieties, it was only a matter of time. The Rods had been mortally wounded. However, they were not the type of dudes to just lay down and die. There was one more chapter to be written. With super-drummer Dave King now behind the kit, 12 Rods continued to play shows locally and tour when King’s busy schedule would allow. Expanding to a five-piece with the addition of guitar wunderkind Jake Hanson, they put out one more album on their own, 2002’s Lost Time. When asked by City Pages if the band had tried to find label support for their last release, Olcott replied, “Honestly, I was so jaded and so disgruntled about the whole industry. F*ck everybody. F*ck everything. I’m just going to do it myself because obviously nobody gets it. To me, it’s the best record we’ve released because it was done under different circumstances.” Lost Time was rock solid. Similar, yet dissimilar to the rest of their catalog, the album is both the sum of what 12 Rods had become and proof of the growth the band made in 10 years. It was also a look at what might have been should they have decided to continue. Pitchfork awarded it a more than respectable 8.1.
After Lost Time came out, King departed and was replaced by George Marich. Then Ev quit. When I asked him why, he summed it up with this story: “We were tired of banging our heads against walls. At one point,the band was doing a showcase for Elektra in New York City. We got there and we killed it. Afterward, one of the A&R guys said, ‘You guys are great. Your songs are awesome. You can play. You have your shit together. And I have no idea how to market that.’ It didn’t matter how good we were, that just wasn’t the point.” Ryan reflected on his brother’s departure with a similar air of defeat: “It was just falling apart and he left. Everyone left. I was the last member standing. I was like, what’s the point anymore? It’s stupid.” 12 Rods performed for the last time at First Avenue on Saturday, August 14, 2004.
In the end, it was just another tragedy from the book of rock ‘n’ roll. A cool band that should have made it, but never did. Minnesota specializes in those. The fact that Pitchfork, now an institution in the music world, turned its back on its Minnesota brethren, removing both the reviews for Gay? and Split Personalities from the site, only makes the story that much more depressing.
Ryan Olcott and Christopher McGuire grew up in 12 Rods. Ev was a little older when they started, but not much. The three of them spent different portions of their teens and 20’s anchored to the band and the dream. When I asked Ev to describe his 12 Rods experience in one word, he thought for a moment and then replied, “Educational.” 12 Rods is where they learned about songwriting and production, about people and relationships, and about the pitfalls of the music industry.
When asked the same question, Ryan replied, “Painful.” Lyrically, Ryan’s songs were always brutally emotionally honest. That is one of the hallmarks of the 12 Rods body of work, and the first thing that many fans initially connect with. That transparency came with a cost. “Ryan put out his inner emotions without much filter,” said Ev. “When you get back a 2.0 on your innermost feelings, it hurts.” When asked to reflect on the band, Ryan said, “It’s weird to look back at the Rods and realize that was a defining moment in my career, considering all the stuff I’ve learned since then. It feels like I almost got screwed a little bit, you know? It’s like I was given my chance a little too early in my career and then… I’m feeling like I’m barely coming into my own now. And that’s what people have to reference. It’s embarrassing at times. But it is what it is. You know it was just a silly rock band… we were just fresh out of high-school. We had our heads up our asses and we were just trying to entertain ourselves you know? That’s what you got. Aesthetically it wasn’t the most pleasing thing all the time, but we had some moments.”
Now strip away the story, the labels, the industry, the relative successes or failures, the opinions and critiques, and all of the other fans and band member expectations. Eliminate all context. Listen to the art. It is my belief that the work stands up. There were definitely “some moments.”
Ryan Olcott reemerged musically post-Rods exploring circuit bending and electronic music in Food Team and Mystery Palace. He currently books and runs sound at the Kitty Kat Club in Dinkytown. Ryan has also produced music for Solid Gold, Mark Mallman, The Golden Bubbles, Friends By Fire and is currently working on a record with Fort Wilson Riot. He recently purchased an “ugly white” Fender Stratocaster and has threatened to use it.
Ev started the group Halloween, Alaska with fellow Rods alumnus Dave King and James Diers and did commercial music production before quitting the business entirely. He then started his own company called Audiofile Engineering, which develops audio software for Mac and iPhone.
Bill Shaw now plays bass in Halloween, Alaska and would happily beat you in a game of pool. He is a hustler.
Christopher McGuire is still one of the most amazing and fearless drummers to ever drum the drums. He and Ryan have made amends and stay in contact with one another.
Dave King stays busy pushing people’s buttons and being hilarious when he is not playing with Happy Apple, The Bad Plus, The Gang Font, Buffalo Collision and The Dave King Trucking Company. He was recently featured on the cover of the October 2012 issue of Modern Drummer.
Jake Hanson is the current heavyweight title holder of the busiest guitarist in Minnesota. He can be seen playing with Halloween, Alaska, Actual Wolf, Haley Bonar, The Pines, Mason Jennings, Solid Gold, All Eyes, Wishbook, Gramma’s Boyfriend, Guitar Party, Ginkgo, Frankie Lee, Mark Mallman, and Tom Petty tribute band All Tomorrow’s Petty. He also produced the new Van Stee record and is producing the forthcoming Caroline Smith album.
George Marich continues to appreciate the finer things in life like golf and jazz. He can still bring the heat from the drummer’s seat when it is required.
Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) on 12 Rods:
“All my picks would come from the last two records. So insanely good. I went and sold 95% of my CDs and probably kept 100 or 150 of my most important records to me, and these two are list toppers. 12 Rods came into my ears way too late. I was a senior or whatever in college. I had this notion that Ryan was on some pop shit that no one had ever done before. Chordal structure, movement, was so fresh. I could go on and on and on. Long live this band.”
Justin’s top 10 (minus 1) in no particular order:
“Fake Magic 8-Ball” (Lost Time)
“Twenty Four Hours Ago” (Lost Time)
“Marionette” (Separation Anxieties)
“Boy In The Woods” (Lost Time)
“Accidents Waiting To Happen” (Lost Time)
“Lost/Found” (Lost Time)
“What Has Happened” (Separation Anxieties)
“Rock N Roll Band” (Separation Anxieties)
“Glad That It’s Over” (Separation Anxieties)
Justin’s label Chigliak has plans to rerelease 12 Rods’ final album Lost Time sometime in 2013.
Official video for “Split Personality”
An early live performance of Lost Time‘s “Telephone Holiday” on some TV show. Bassist Bill Shaw now onboard and Christopher McGuire still on the throne. Classic Rods lineup.
Fox Force Five lineup of 12 Rods. Ev, Bill, Ryan, Dave King on the kit and Jake Hanson on the guit. Video for “Twenty Four Hours Ago” from Lost Time.