12 Rods documentary remembers what might have been

12 Rods: It takes four to make an accident

12 Rods: It takes four to make an accident Photo courtesy of MSPIFF

A new documentary about 12 Rods, the weird and brilliant Minneapolis band who were briefly touted as a Next Big Thing around the turn of the millennium, is a family affair for its director.

James Francis Flynn’s film Accidents Waiting to Happen: A 12 Rods Story, premieres at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival with two screenings on April 17 and 18. Flynn’s brother is Matt Flynn, the first of several bassists who would pass through 12 Rods on their road to minor-legend status. Matt appears to have been a top-notch cool older brother, giving James, seven years his junior, a front row seat to the development of one of the most underrated bands of the ‘90s.

“He would always include me in everything that was going on,” Flynn says. “I was literally in 6th grade and hanging out with the 18, 19 year old kids… I went to all the Friday night 12 Rods shows.”

12 Rods formed in Oxford, Ohio, dropping their first album, Bliss, in 1993 before relocating to Minneapolis and becoming one of the most interesting bands of the Twin Cities’ ‘90s rock scene.

In addition to Matt Flynn, 12 Rods’ first lineup featured vocalist, guitarist, and lead songwriter Ryan Olcott, Christopher McGuire on drums, and keyboardist Ev, who is Olcott’s brother.

The group arrived in the Twin Cities with a fully formed sonic identity -- a shotgun wedding of contemporary elements (the alternative nation’s mandatory hard rocking rhythm section, shoegaze’s sighing guitars) and unique bits from the past (splashes of classic pop chords and new wave-y, retro-futurist synths.)

What happened next is a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the Replacements: A Twin Cities band starts getting whispers of national success, only to falter and fade into obscurity. Stubborn Minnesota music fans never, ever let go, clutching their vicarious dreams closer, till they harden into little diamonds of nostalgia. (One message board thread on a 12-year-old City Pages piece about the band is still active today.)

The group’s 1996 EP, Gay?, garnered a perfect score from Pitchfork, then based in St. Paul, and the group signed to V2, the shiny new Virgin subsidiary that would bring the White Stripes to national success in the next decade.

“The overarching story is they’re this band that… they were expected to be huge,” Flynn said. “People were calling them the American Radiohead.”

Their first full-length on V2, 1998’s Split Personalities, won acclaim but not sales. Their second, 2000’s Todd Rundgren-produced Separation Anxieties, won neither (though it has its defenders now). V2 dropped them, and McGuire left after its recording sessions.

The band limped on a little while longer. Dave King of the Bad Plus (and half the bands in town at the time) stepped in behind the kit, and in 2002 the band self-released Lost Time, a fantastic album that sounds like both a missing, logical follow-up Split Personalities, and like a lost peak-period Dismemberment Plan album.

12 Rods broke up in 2004. The catalyst for Accidents Waiting to Happen was a reunion show they played in January 2015 to celebrate Lost Time’s re-release on Justin Vernon’s Chigliak imprint.

At first, Flynn just planned to shoot the show. When it show was announced on Facebook in 2014, longtime fans from around the world came out of the digital woodwork.

“There were tons of fans from all over the place saying, ‘I can’t get to this show,’” Flynn said. Many asked if there would be any recording or live stream made of it so they could at least experience it secondhand. Flynn figured he could help them out. He’d already had some involvement in television and film production, directing a feature called Eastern College, which got a small DVD and streaming release in 2008. Eastern College was shot in Minneapolis, so Flynn already had some contacts in the area.

After the show, Flynn decided the footage he gathered could be expanded into a full-length documentary about the band. Their career arc -- tipped for the brass ring, only to burn out, made a good story.

“It just never happened,” Flynn said. “There’s something that’s compelling to me about those frustrated expectations.”

In a nod to Martin Scorsese’s foundational concert doc The Last Waltz, Flynn’s film alternates between interview footage with members of the band and full songs from the 2015 reunion show. It mythologizes the band without denying their fans the opportunity of seeing the group in action for one last (or maybe first) time.

In addition to his personal relationship to the band, Flynn is a fan. Although he suggested Lost Time probably holds up best front-to-back, Split Personalities is his personal favorite. It’s not too hard to push him into the kind of thinking that has kept 12 Rods lovers going for the last decade and change: What if they’d gone with “I Wish You Were A Girl,” one Flynn’s favorites (and mine) as the single of Split Personalities instead of the title track?

“I think that really could have been a minor hit single back in the ‘90s,” he said.

Accidents Waiting to Happen: A 12 Rods Story has two screenings during MSPIFF: the first is at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 17, 2017 at the Uptown Theatre, and the second is at 9:40 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18 at St. Anthony Main Theatre 2. Tickets are $13.00 for the general public, $11.00 for members of the Film Society of Minneapolis-St.Paul, and $8.00 for students with IDs and anyone 25 and under.