Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

Art rockers 12 Rods make their musical parents proud

People who make a case for Rush as one of Thee Great Rock Bands may feel vindicated by the remarkably brash art-rock of 12 Rods--a cheeky trio from Cincinnati currently making waves in Minneapolis's underwhelming rock pool.

These youngsters are the latest in a long tradition of ass-tight, jazz-trained bands with rigorous song structures and annoying lead vocalists. And they aren't alone. Like-minded indie-kids with similar prog 'n' jazz aspirations have traded punk pedigrees for emotive lyricism and school-crafted musicianship (e.g., Joan of Ark, or the school of vultures still circling the corpse of the great noise-fusion band Slint). But 12 Rods manage to sound fresh in a scene that long ago defaulted on its debts to country and punk, splitting the balance among a thousand dull bar bands.

Their 1996 debut EP, Gay?, evinced a bracing instrumental confidence and intriguing sexual ambiguity. And after the trio topped City Pages' "Best New Band Poll" in 1996, it was clear that many skeptics had learned to love singer Ryan Olcott's Ozzy-meets-Helmet wail. The Rods, then as now, offer something few other rock bands do these days--musical ambition. Still, only the bold may go: Without hopping the retro-train or techno-plane, 12 Rods produce a bright, layered, synth-tinged guitar sound; their just-released full-length debut, Split Personalities, recalls an era when musicianship had star currency.

More specifically, 12 Rods embody a moment when prog's pretense and new wave's punctuated pop tunes met and made merry: Think of the Police's "Synchronicity II," Styx's "Mr. Roboto," or Yes's "Owner of a Lonely Heart." But Olcott's love for classic punk, from Big Black to the Minutemen, deflates the pomposity of his musical lineage. "You should see a doctor about your voice," he chides himself on the album's title cut. Likewise, the band's discipline and inventiveness make the 6-minute epics fly by.

"We're the anti-jam band," offers drummer Christopher McGuire over dinner at the Loon, not far from the band's Warehouse District practice space and studio. McGuire, a mop-topped 22-year-old, met Olcott in high school back in Ohio, where the two shared an interest in skateboarding and drumming. With a forceful personality that verges on dinkdom, McGuire's obviously the businessman of the band, and I can only imagine what he must be like as a drum teacher. "I dump more students than I take," he says of his part-time trade.

"Chris dumped me last year as a student," jokes Olcott, 23. "I wasn't practicing eight hours a day." Ryan, a soft boy with a gentle voice, is an unlikely foil for his old friend. But like McGuire, the handsome singer is something of a perfectionist, sporting a shaved dome to ward off any signs of thinning hair. McGuire, Olcott, and his technophile older brother, Ev, share a stylized geek fashion sense; all band members, including hired-on bass player "Sergeant" Bill Shaw, don "fine eyewear" purchased from a designer shop.

"I always wanted to make long songs," Olcott says. "I wanted to write five or six very different parts for a song because that's the way I always heard music, based on the stuff I was listening to with my parents." Ev and Ryan grew up in a jazz family. Dad was a music professor, Mom a pianist, and the boys began ear training at an early age. "My parents would play a chord and say, 'Is this a happy chord or a sad chord?' You know: major or minor," says Olcott. "And then they put me on the Suzuki method of violin, which is basically learning music by rote. When I picked up the guitar five or six years ago, I just applied that knowledge."

"I've seen his father come up to him after a 12 Rods show," says McGuire, "And he'll say, 'The tritone at the end of that last bridge was beautiful. It was just too loud.'" Indeed, though Ryan and Ev's parents are proud of 12 Rods, rock 'n' roll was never encouraged around the Olcott residence.

"Rock was suppressed in our family," says Ev. "I bought the first rock album that entered the house, and I remember sneaking it in and quietly playing it in my room--I'm pretty sure it was the KISS album where the whole cover is Gene Simmons's face. I tried to transcribe 'Radioactive' when I was 9 years old."

For his part, McGuire got a similarly early start in music. "My father plays the Hammond B-3, a big giant wooden organ, and my mother was a brilliant singer," he says. "And they did the hotel circuit for about 10, 15 years. My brother and I spent the first years of our lives on tour with them, and I've known since I was 3 years old that this was what I wanted to do."

12 Rods' synthesis of DAT machines and sample-triggers reminds McGuire of his first gigs with his dad. "When I was 7 or 8 years old, he would let me play drums, but I had to play with the drum machine," he explains. "Imagine a kid onstage in a hotel lobby with his ear to the PA speaker, playing along with this 1940 drum machine."

Yet 12 Rods' lifelong training doesn't make their live show boring. McGuire flails his limbs like a cross between Keith Moon and Animal from The Muppet Show, but his beat never wavers. Everyone in the band moves--a nice antidote to the usual slumped-shoulder, wall-gazing pose of Minneapolis rockers--and their songs range from explosions of anger ("I Am Faster") to tender and plainspoken tunes about bi-curiosity ("I Wish You Were a Girl") that pick up on the themes of Gay?.

"Sexuality is a big part of rock 'n' roll," says Olcott, "And I think that's what turns me on to it. I don't want to say that my parents suppressed me or my sexuality, but they never gave me the birds and the bees talk. They also didn't like me playing rock 'n' roll around the house. In a way, this is my rebellion."

12 Rods perform on Radio K'sOff the Record on 770 AM, 4 p.m. Friday; they play an ID show at the 400 Bar, 11 p.m. Saturday and an all-ages show at 8 p.m. Sunday. Call 332-2903 for information.

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