End of the Road, End of the Rods
There was always a lot of pressure on 12 Rods to be more than just a local band. For recent Minnesota transplants and kids born too late to see Hüsker Dü flip their wigs or to watch the Replacements rock in the days of wine (not guns) and roses, 12 Rods represented a chance to put Minneapolis back in the national music rags. Through three albums and a rotating cast of band members, the group won over fans and frustrated publicists with a sound too tech-savvy to be grunge, too soulful to be synth pop. Now, after 12 years, they're calling it quits. To ensure their place in local music history, they're turning 12rods.com into a museum complete with photos, interviews, and every song they've ever recorded available as $.99 downloads. On the eve of their final show, we dropped by Tracks Bar & Grill with singer/guitarist Ryan Olcott, keyboardist Ev Olcott, bassist Bill Shaw, guitarist Jake Hansen, and drummer George Marich to talk about the birth and death of a local legend.
City Pages: Let's start from the beginning...
Ryan Olcott: It officially started at Talawanda High School in Oxford, Ohio, with me, Matt Flynn, Christopher McGuire, and Dan Perlin. We weren't even a band, but Dan got us a gig playing at Field Fest.
Ev Olcott: "Field Fest" was in some girl's backyard.
Ryan Olcott: She lived in the middle of nowhere. There were chaperones in the house, the kids were out back getting fucked up. And it was KFC-catered. Our first gig was for KFC heirs. Christopher and I both played drums, so I said, okay, I'll play guitar and write some songs really quickly. Matt Flynn named us Ryan'z Bihg Hed.
Ev Olcott: I had just graduated from college. I was in charge of the P.A. and I had a boom box. A couple days afterward, we made a tape.
Ryan Olcott: I left for college. I was doing the orchestral, legit thing, but I kind of wanted to play rock music.
Ev Olcott: I'd taken an internship at Metro [Studios], which is now Oarfin [Records]. I played the tape for a guy and he said, "I can totally hear you've got something. You guys should make a demo." I was excited because that meant I'd get to record a band. So Ryan decided not to go another semester. Mom and Dad said, "Okay. He probably wasn't going to finish school anyway."
Ryan Olcott: I went back to Oxford and spent a few months recording the demos. Matt Flynn named us 12 Rods. Christopher and I were in my room after practice, trying to think of a stupid name, something ambiguous. I had a children's Bible in my room and I was just flipping through pages and there it was.
Ev Olcott: They came up and did the demo in February of '93. That became the first full-length record. It was done at Metro in a weekend and they called it Bliss. Early versions of "I Am Faster," "Repeat," and "Stella" are on there.
Ryan Olcott: We sold 500 copies pretty quickly.
Ev Olcott: Mostly in Cincinnati, but I brought a few up here.
Ryan Olcott: Then we broke up because Matt Flynn wasn't happy. So Christopher and I got a number from Chris Stromquist who was in a funk band that Ev was playing sax in. They were called the LippaBoogieGaroovians.
Ev Olcott: I was bored, I needed something to do!
Ryan Olcott: Chris knew Matt Foust.
Ev Olcott: Matt [Foust] was looking for a drummer for [his band] Ether Bunny. So Matt called Ryan and Ryan said, "Yeah, I'll play in your band." He was going in surreptitiously to find out who their bass player was and take him.
Ryan Olcott: Matt was the guitarist, but he agreed to play bass with the Rods. Christopher moved to town in the beginning of '95. Our first show was in March at the Purple Onion.
Ev Olcott: Two 45-minute sets, low volume. Our first loud show was at Blues Alley soon after that.
Ryan Olcott: I remember someone wrote me a note on a napkin that said, "Stop mumbling in the microphone." Then we recorded the first half of the Gay? EP, which at the time was called A Very Special Christmas. Gay? came out and REV105 put it into heavy rotation. Matt quit, so instead of a bass player we had a DAT machine. Some labels started courting the hell out of us and we were 20, 21, 22 [years old]. We were the first American band signed to V2, and it was a big deal. At the same time, we were so overwhelmed with all the business stuff. If we were given the option, we would've signed to a smaller label, but the major labels were the first to step up to the plate. James Diers at the Twin Cities Reader put the bug into a lot of A&R people who were calling about Minneapolis bands, asking what was the next big thing. We didn't even have to go to New York or anything. People were flying in from L.A. to see us.
We played SXSW right after we got signed. We were a really high-maintenance band because we had a mechanical bass player and our own monitors. Anyway, our gear was sabotaged, we think, by [another band]. We had strings missing off our guitars, one of Ev's keyboards was damaged and wasn't turning on. We had 10 minutes to set up and play in front of everybody. We were this big hyped thing and we played terribly. It was our worst show ever, and it was the most crucial show we ever played. [The other band's singer] was a dick and I couldn't figure out what his deal was. He probably used one of our strings as a tourniquet backstage. The demise of 12 Rods had everything to do with [that band]. Cocks.
From that point on it was hopeless. V2 nearly lost all interest in us. When the second record came out, they took all our money and threw it into some radio thing to get it on KROQ [106.7 FM], basically fucking payola. And that failed. We had a big-time manager.
Bill Shaw: He broke Living Colour!
Ryan Olcott: And Soul Coughing and Ween. We were a very low priority on his list. All of our connections for college-level promotion were out of the question because they knew we'd been shopped to the mainstream. Once they find that out and they know you're trying to go back to them, they won't pay attention to you.
CP: How did you meet Bill Shaw?
Ryan Olcott: We managed to swing an endorsement for the Spectacle Shop. And Bill was friends with the son of the owner.
Shaw: My friend said, "My dad's looking for jingles. Why don't you do something?" So I did the radio commercial and the on-hold message. Christopher called the Spectacle Shop, got put on hold, and said, "What's that?" [Someone at the Spectacle Shop] said, "Oh, that's Bill. He plays bass." So I auditioned, and then I was rocking out, playing "I Wish You Were a Girl." I didn't know the song, but Christopher just said, "It's like this: boom bah boom boom bah." I had my foot up on his bass drum and he was like, "Don't...no. Not the foot."
I actually saw the Rods about a year before that at the Fine Line. I was watching this show and all of a sudden everybody turned around and the Rods were playing in the back of the Fine Line. I said, "This is the greatest band I have ever seen and I will play bass with them."
Ryan Olcott: That was the day before the V2 signing. Then we wasted like five months trying to get our studio together to record Split Personalities. V2 was getting pissed off at us because we were taking a long time. We weren't really getting along with Christopher, so it was hard to practice. I knew the day we signed that we were doomed.
We got the record done and there were mixed reviews. That was in '98. We couldn't get a lot of the shows we wanted because we weren't a college band. Christopher had already convinced everyone we were a mainstream band, ready to play stadiums, when in fact we couldn't even play a fucking rehearsal. 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 fucking 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 5 singles on this."
We couldn't record by ourselves--we'd never have been able to settle on anything. We needed a mediator, a producer. So we sent out the demos, and a lot of [producers] responded but the first one was Todd Rundgren. I took that as a sign.
Meanwhile, 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. I think when we entered the music business, people had this preconceived idea that we were this asshole band. 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.
So we were recording with Todd Rundgren in Hawaii. We didn't get along with Christopher and he actually left early. He was only there for three weeks. We stayed for six. 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.
Shaw: Our standards seemed so much higher than his. We didn't need him as much as he needed something to do.
Ryan Olcott: He needed to pay the mortgage on his nine properties.
Shaw: On his polo field. One take and he'd just say, "All right, that's good." And we'd say, "You can't be serious. Even in the early days of crappy demos I wouldn't take that."
Ryan Olcott: But it was a great vacation.
Shaw: Playing Frisbee with a dog on an orchid farm.
Ryan Olcott: Next to a beach with lava rocks everywhere. There wasn't any semblance of nightlife: no college, no kids our age. Just retired Hollywood people.
Shaw: The whole island of Kauai is the size of the 694-494 loop.
Ryan Olcott: But we saw this poster for a show.
Shaw: A ska-punk show at the grocery store. We stuck out like a sore thumb: all pale skin and wearing black. The first night we went to the show and played a few tunes with [the band's] instruments.
Ryan Olcott: Then they asked us to come back and play a private party in their rehearsal space. It was a barn. So we befriended these high school musicians.
Shaw: The local savages. And then Todd came to the show. I think he was mad that we were out rocking out.
Ryan Olcott: The next day we didn't have the greatest recording session and he was like, "Well, if it wasn't for you and your rock show last night..."
Ryan Olcott: When we got back to Minneapolis, we realized we had no more money left. So I moved in with Mark Mallman and lived in a closet for a while. I was pretty depressed because we'd heard rough mixes of the record and none of us liked the sound. There was no power behind it.
Shaw: Todd didn't know what we were like because the only time he'd seen us live was during a makeshift show in a barn.
Ryan Olcott: We thought he'd do some production and it'd blow my mind because he's Todd Rundgren. 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. Everything that Steve Albini said in [his essay] "The Problem with Music"... Honestly, I heard from some reliable sources that he modeled that after us.
So the record came out and Christopher left after the Mill City Music Festival.
Shaw: Dave [King] came on after that.
Ryan Olcott: People liked him and people hated him. Our audience was divided. But he was the spiritual centerpiece.
Shaw: He represented a voice that everybody was hesitant to bring forward to management and the people at the label. He said, "Look, Ryan and Ev, you guys are the artists. They work for you."
Ryan Olcott: He put things back in perspective, and it helped, but shortly thereafter we got dropped. We were dead in the water as far as anybody outside of Minneapolis was concerned. Our records weren't being distributed and Dave couldn't tour because he was in so many other bands. So our schedule revolved around him, which was uncomfortable.
Ryan Olcott: Since then, we've been struggling. Dave left. George [Marich] joined. Ev quit after our best show in New York. We were out drinking.
Shaw: We stumbled upon this musically enlightening experience. Ryan, Jake [Hansen], and I were at some basement club in New York watching this great dub band. We'd come halfway across the United States to play a rock show. Ev gave us his blessing, like, "I'm going to take a nap in the van, you go and have fun."
Jake Hansen: It was his van and he'd been up driving for 24 hours.
Ryan Olcott: It was post-show, post-party, and Ev was asleep in the van, and we woke him up. He turned around and just said, "Shut the fuck up." Dead serious.
Hansen: Ev has never said anything like that to anybody.
Ryan Olcott: So he flipped, and I called him on it. "Ev, you're the one that's out of line. Stop acting like an asshole." The next morning he was all quiet and pissed off. He said he was quitting. I said "Why?" And he said, "Well, you called me an asshole."
Ev Olcott: I just realized how much I didn't enjoy going on the road anymore. And I knew these guys wanted to do it and should. I'm getting too old for that kind of thing. I didn't know 12 years ago that this would still be going on.
Ryan Olcott: You said at one point that if we didn't make it by the time you were 27...
Ev Olcott: 30.
Ryan Olcott: You said 27.
Ev Olcott: If I wasn't a rock star by the time I was 30, then I'd be done with the whole thing. 30 was my cutoff and I'm totally cool with what I did by the time I was 30.
Ryan Olcott: You also said it was because I called you an asshole.
Ev Olcott: You did. And it pissed me off. But so what? You were drunk. I was being stupid.
Ryan Olcott: It was kind of wishy-washy about whether Ev was still in the group. Jake had been in the band, but he had a completely different role.
Hansen: I joined in summer of 2002 and this was early 2003.
Shaw: Jake looks like the long-lost Olcott. And we'd been kicking around the idea of another guitarist for two years.
Hansen: We were talking to someone who was booking us a potentially big fall tour.
George Marich: That's why I was hired initially.
Hansen: Dave was busy with [another band] the Bad Plus, so George stepped in as the drummer. And I was taking over on Ev's parts and playing my old parts.
Shaw: We worked our asses off to make it work. And it did work. And then the tour fell through.
Ryan Olcott: The lady booking it even paid for a semester of Jake's college tuition.
CP: So how did George get involved?
Marich: I met Jake when I was playing in a band called Rhombus and we did a show with [Jake's band] Cowboy Curtis. The first time I saw 12 Rods was at the 400 Bar and Ryan Olcott opened the show saying, "What's up, bitches and faggots?" I instantly liked them.
Shaw: Ryan is maybe one of the greatest frontmen in Minneapolis music--but don't give him a microphone in between songs. Turn it off. Unplug it. Kick the soundman an extra $50 to pay attention.
Ryan Olcott: My banter's terrible.
Shaw: The fact that it's terrible is what makes it good because it always creates an awkward moment between the band and the audience.
Ryan Olcott: Awkwardness doesn't sell, apparently. That's one thing we're good at. Since the beginning of time, we were always an awkward band. For a while that was cool, but it faded quickly.
Shaw: When awkward went out, matching suits came back in.
CP: We didn't talk about Lost Time yet.
Ryan Olcott: With Lost Time it was nice being left to our own devices. There was no one breathing down our necks with a release date. We were in the studio slaving out of the pure love of what we were doing.
Hansen: Did you shop it around at all or were you planning a self-release all along?
Ryan Olcott: Honestly, I was so jaded and so disgruntled about the whole industry. Fuck everybody. Fuck 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.
CP: Let's talk about the show you played at Edina High School a few years ago.
Shaw: We made the best out of the worst possible situation. We did sound check and it seemed like the worst possible thing, like straight out of Spinal Tap. Our dressing room was the prop room for their plays.
Ryan Olcott: There was a big school math competition going on that night, so no one was there. But we wore costumes.
Shaw: I wore the nurse's costume.
Ryan Olcott: I wore a Raiders jacket and this weird hat. Dave was wearing wings.
Shaw: Everybody had a very distinct costume and Ryan was like a collage of bad distinct costumes.
CP: I don't remember what Ev was wearing.
Shaw: He was probably "goth guy." I had a great time, though--just this beautiful auditorium, stadium seating and everything. There were 40 kids there, and they were the weird kids who no one at Edina High School talked to.
CP: I also remember hearing about how you once rearranged a hotel room instead of trashing it.
Ryan Olcott: We were playing with [Detroit pop group] Waxwings in Oxford, my hometown, and they had requested hotels on the Miami University campus. But they had to leave that night or something. We didn't need [the rooms] but we took them anyway. We rearranged the furniture and made it look all Blair Witch, unscrewed the light bulbs and made a weird pyramid, mattresses up on their sides, everything rearranged. The TV was in the shower. We didn't break anything. Well, Bill did.
Shaw: Let me explain. There's this thing I can do, right? Not only can I do a front flip, I can front flip onto a surface that's above ground. Like I could do a flip onto this table and land on my feet.
Marich: Really? Do it now.
Shaw: No. So I had to do it and I landed on the bed and the bed collapsed. Now if I go to Ohio, I'll be placed under arrest and executed.
Ryan Olcott: I guess the hotel staff freaked out because they thought the rearrangement was cultish. They called the FBI. The FBI launched an investigation. Of course, our parents called us and they were like, "Do you know anything about these rooms?" So we confessed to our parents and they said, "Well, you're banished from campus. You can't come to Miami ever again."
Shaw: No, not that! Anything but that!
Ryan Olcott: I kind of had a premonition about it because I used to skateboard on campus all the time and get busted by the security officers. I knew one day I would be full-on banished.
CP: How much time do you think the FBI spent investigating?
Shaw: In Oxford, it could have been weeks. It was probably very high on their priority list.
CP: Ryan, with 12 Rods done, will you work more with [your electro side project] Future Wives?
Ryan Olcott: That would be great. I spent a few years licking my wounds after 12 Rods got dropped from V2, so I tried to work with new musicians, something that would keep my mind off the Rods. But [Future Wives collaborator] Mark [Mallman] can't commit to touring. I would do it at the drop of a hat, but right now it's confined to a studio thing.
I've had a really bad time with music for the past five years of my life. All the stuff I went through between '95 and '98 totally caught up with me. It fucking demoralized and defeated me. We should have been huge by now. I don't know. What am I supposed to do? I rejected my college education. I could have easily been a concert percussionist and made a sweet living being lead timpanist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But I gave it up for rock 'n' roll and got screwed. I can either look at 12 Rods as a giant waste of time or a giant stepping-stone to something else. I've spent way too much time to have it be a failure.
Ev Olcott: I don't think your path is done.
Ryan Olcott: I fucking hope not.
Ev Olcott: You're far too talented to consider anything you've done a waste.
Ryan Olcott: Fucking rule number one in music school: Talent is relative. It's all about the fucking business. And I'm a terrible businessman. Every band should know right off the bat about the evil powers of the music industry. It fucking tears you apart and destroys your spirit. That's the hardest thing about it all: trying to stay motivated.
Ev Olcott: I'm just doing more studio stuff, working with bands, doing some film trailers, just paying the bills. I'll be in some bands here and there, but certainly nothing this serious. Just as long as I have music at some degree in my life so I can keep some kind of stability.
Hansen: I'll still play in Cowboy Curtis. I play drums in Superdanger. And I'm going to try out to be in Ryan's new band when he holds auditions for guitarists.
Shaw: I came from metal; I'm going to go back to metal. The group I was in long before 12 Rods was Post Mortem Grinner, and we've got George on drums. We're ready to go, but it's certainly not open to the same sort of criticism as the Rods. I just want to play and not worry about what anyone might think.
Shaw: I can't wait to see what everybody does in the future. I know for a fact that anything that anybody at this table does I will like. Even if I don't like it, I'll love it. Even if it has nothing to do with anything I like, I'll know where it comes from.
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