By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
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On one of the hottest days of the year, when the sun is radiating energy like a 7 trillion watt heat lamp without an off switch, Christopher McGuire meets me in a Warehouse District coffee shop wearing a black suit, black shirt, and black tie. The stylish, funereal duds seem appropriate in a way: He's here to talk about something he doesn't talk about much anymore--a band he no longer plays with, and its charismatic frontman. "I met Ryan Olcott when I was in sixth grade," McGuire says, leaning in close. "I knew this guy was just like me: He was a skateboarder, a drummer--a damn good drummer. He was kind of a prick, kind of a show-bizzy guy, and I really liked that.
"I'll never forget when I first saw Ryan," he continues, becoming more animated. "He was the drummer for an orchestra that was playing my school assembly. He was playing drums along to Flashdance."
What a feeling, indeed. Years later in 1995, having long ago shed their shoulderless sweatshirts, McGuire and brothers Ryan and Ev Olcott moved from Ohio to take on the Minneapolis music scene with their space-age pop band 12Rods. The tight group of friends proved to be an effective musical machine, Ryan as writer, Ev as engineer, and McGuire as business manager. The formula worked musically as well: The trio topped City Pages' Best New Band poll in 1996 and in 1998 released a debut LP (on major label V2 Records) titled Split Personalities, a gorgeous blend of synth and guitar pop.
But their friendship started to suffer after moving to Minneapolis. "Even around '97 it became apparent that things were coming apart," Ryan Olcott says, as he doodles on the paper that serves as his placemat at Minneapolis's Little Tijuana restaurant one June evening. Though Olcott is jovial and easy in conversation, he slows to consider his words when the subject turns to the band's former drummer. Toes were being stepped on, he says, and egos bruised. Rehearsals weren't fun anymore. Resentment was starting to creep into the essential collaborative process. Eventually, when McGuire and the rest of the band met, they spoke only of the logistics of their musical project--rehearsal times, set lists.
This personal tension was taking place at a time when the group was preparing the highly anticipated followup to Split Personalities. As Ryan Olcott penned the tunes for the new album, he had no idea that its title, Separation Anxieties, would soon apply to the relationship between him and his childhood friend. Instead this record draws its subject matter from a more commonplace divide: a romantic breakup. "It was therapeutic," Olcott says of the new material. "All the songs except one were written over about a six-month period. I had just gotten done with this shitty breakup, so I wrote these reactionary songs. They're much more desperate than the ones on Split Personalities, much more direct."
Direct, and at times, entertainingly adolescent. "My ex thinks she's so tough/She flicks her cigarette before she puffs," Olcott sings on Separation Anxieties' first single, "What Has Happened?" "I think she's a man when she wears Adidas/She lost her libido then dumped me for a punk/Who's in a band/Sounds like Korn/But pretentiously aggressive/Not too impressive."
"I've nearly gotten my ass kicked over this song already," Olcott says of the tune, a lyrical flip-off that refers obliquely to another Minneapolis band, American Head Charge. Later on the album, in a contrite moment, he offers "Your Secret's Safe With Me," a quiet lullaby that Olcott says he wrote to apologize for "What Has Happened?"
Last summer V2, hoping to build on the buzz created by Split Personalities, sent 12Rods to Todd Rundgren's Treble In Paradise studio in Hawaii to record the followup. "It wasn't the most rock 'n' roll of atmospheres," Olcott says. "But it sort of brings the weirdness out in you: You're alienated from the rest of the culture because here we're all pasty and dressed in black and everyone else isn't wearing any clothes."
In addition to a sense of detachment from the island scene, the band--particularly McGuire--felt stressed about the seemingly cavalier attitude of superproducer Rundgren (whose credits include everything from XTC's Skylarking to Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell). "When we got there, he really wanted us to relax and not think about the music for a while," McGuire says. "But I was like, 'What are you talking about? We just spent 15 hours on a fucking plane! Let's record!'" McGuire, who may have misconstrued the meaning of Rundgren's 1983 novelty hit "Bang on the Drum All Day," pauses, then offers, "but I've got to give him credit. He got me to relax, and he got some good things out of us. At first it seemed like he didn't really care. But after a while, I learned that it wasn't that he didn't care, there was just a bigger picture."
The first opportunity Rundgren had to observe 12Rod's new songs in a more immediate setting came on a night when the band had fled the island of Kauai, with its absence of nightlife, for a club in a neighboring town 45 minutes away. "We saw this poster for a punk/ska warehouse party," Olcott says. "We went to this show, and there were kids with [Minneapolis punk phenoms Dillinger Four] shirts on! So we talked to them and told them who we were and they asked us to come down the next night. So we go down there and play this stripped-down punk-rock version of "Marionette," and they just loved it."
"Marionette," which Olcott calls "yet another display of my trite subject matter about chicks and inferiority" starts with a creepy music-box melody and a taut vocal line: "You cut my strings/And we'll see what freedom brings." Then it melts into the kind of head-bobbing power pop that the Rods have cultivated into their signature sound. An inferiority complex might be the last thing you'd expect from an exhilarating live performer whose label had just flown him to Hawaii to record an album, and breakup songs are only slightly more novel than love songs. But Olcottt has a way of making the lyrics zip. Separation Anxieties finds him visiting every miserable point on the dysfunctional relationship continuum, from the album's opener, "Kaboom" (opening line: "SEX!"), to its closer, "Glad That It's Over," on which Olcott sighs, "It's been a long day/I just want to go to bed/Let the dreams take over my head/I think I'm dying/I think I'm dead."
While Ryan Olcott was venting the last drops of his romantic spleen during recordings, the band was in midst of discovering that relationship woes are only a subset of all the ways people can make one another miserable. In September 1999, McGuire called the group together and announced his intention to leave what he still labels "the best band I've ever been in."
"I called for a meeting with the guys and said, 'Obviously, considering the way everyone is trying to get out of this room right now as fast as they can, there are problems here," McGuire recalls.
When asked about the incident, Olcott lowers his eyes and says, "He was a lifelong friend of ours, but we just went our separate ways. He had this intimidating way of making us feel shitty about the things we wanted to do. That kind of tension can only work for so long in a group. Eventually someone breaks. Someone says I quit. And he quit."
"My girlfriend of three years and I had just called it quits, and then this," McGuire says. "It was the worst time in my life."
But while McGuire won't be a part of Separation Anxieties' release activities, he's immersed in music again. The drummer currently splits his time between a half-dozen musical projects and ten students. Besides backing Mark Mallman, McGuire also plays with the Bellcats and the jazz outfit the Three of Us. "I've never felt more in control of my drumsticks than I do now," he says. All this is even more remarkable given the fact the McGuire is still only 24 years old.
To replace McGuire, 12Rods have recruited one of the Twin Cities most respected drummers, Dave King, who is perhaps best known for his raucous fusion outfit Happy Apple. "We've been friends for a long time," Olcott says. "When it came time, we went to Dave to ask if maybe he had a student he thought would be right for the job," Olcott recounts with a laugh. "'I'm your drummer,' he said."
"It's sort of flattering that it took someone of that stature to fill my shoes," McGuire says. "I mean, the guy's an octopus."
12Rods will change noticeably with the addition of King. His rhythmically nuanced and occasionally bombastic playing will no doubt assert itself into Olcott's clean songcraft, and he brings with him a fan base from myriad other musical projects. King isn't the guy they moved away from home with, but his bandmates are thrilled nonetheless. Says Olcott, "We're in the best position we could possibly be in now." In any case, after suffering a Split Personality and Separation Anxieties, the new 12Rods are now free to find a fresh pathology.