Last week, 12 Rods released their first new album in 20 years. Its rock-zombie title, If We Stayed Alive, is both intentionally misleading and tantalizingly appropriate for a band that authored some of the proggiest tunes these Twin Cities have ever heard, and some of the juiciest rock lore these Twin Cities have ever lored. It’s hard to say what’s the biggest factor in their unlikely resurrection—was it the latest rehashing of the legend of their 1996 perfect Pitchfork 10.0 scoring EP Gay? Was it the fact that Todd Rundgren, the producer who fucked them over on their 2000 album Separation Anxieties (Pitchfork score: 2.0), was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Or was it truly this new batch of tunes recorded by a band that’s really not even a band anymore?
12 Rods is now a project completely controlled by its founder, its lead vocalist, and its sole remaining original member, Ryan Olcott. In the intervening years since the band’s breakup, Olcott has continued to make music, both for himself in projects like Mystery Palace and c.Kostra, and as a producer and engineer for bands like Solid Gold and Fort Wilson Riot.
When I sat down with Olcott in his home studio, a week out from the 12 Rods reunion show at First Avenue for which he’s been rehearsing with four newly hired 12 Rods, he’s surrounded by mountains of hoarded vintage electronics—ancient Japanese cameras and microphones acquired on eBay, all seemingly set up to record a duo of half-dressed mannequins. Olcott is wearing a straw hat over a black Koyaanisqatsi t-shirt with black jeans and bright red Adidas slides with socks. He seems healthy and energetic and more optimistic than maybe I’ve ever seen him, and he hasn’t even read the 7.3 Pitchfork review of If We Stayed Alive yet.
Although later, after revisiting the transcript of our conversation, it occurs to me that maybe I misread his mood.
“I don’t give a fuck about 12 Rods,” he says, “And I still don’t.”
Well okay, then.
But Olcott says more than two decades after the band broke up, after stints making music under various monikers other than 12 Rods, and acting as a mentor to other artists (both on his own experimental label Pytch Records and as the sound guy at Dinkytown’s now-shuttered Kitty Kat Club for 17 years), he’s moved far enough past the Rods to find a new perspective on what he once had.
“I was on a path of 12 Rods’ destruction,” he says. “And I did that, and now I look back at it and it really does feel like a different life.” To Olcott, it feels like he’s in a cover band of his old band, and he’s actually enjoying the gig. “I have more support, I have more enthusiasm, I have more fans than I’ve ever had before,” he says. “And I wasn’t even trying. And that’s all the inspiration I needed for me to go, let’s do it again.”
I really like these new songs. It sounds like 12 Rods, but with crisper engineering. Old songs that sound new.
Thank you. Man, that’s cool. I mean, it’s just engineering experience. Honestly, I can pretty much attribute that to spending time behind the board working with other people, post-12 Rods.
You kept pushing your skills forward, obviously.
Pretty much just refined all the engineering tricks so when it came time to record the 12 Rods stuff, it was easy. Meat and potatoes.
You announced on social media that you found these demos in 2021, right?
I had these 12 Rods demos that never really came into fruition. Elizabeth from Littlefoot and I had a bad break off. I was working on that record for a year. Since that was canceled, I had all this time. And I was getting weird feedback: everyone loves 12 Rods again for some reason, so I thought, maybe I’ll just do these demos. It was inevitable that I was going to come back to them at some point.
How old are they?
They were written as early as 1999. I probably wrote them during or even before Lost Time was recorded. There were demos that were going to be extended into maybe the next record. We played a few of them live—we were in the infantile stages of learning them. Then we broke up, and they just sat there.
Demos meaning just you on a four track?
Yeah. Just elemental parts: drum machine, and slightly different lyrics. But they were finished and they were good. And that set of songs was graduating from an angsty mentality. I was with the Rods, and the sound was hard, rambunctious, aggressive. But I really wanted to write—dare I say it—like, Fleetwood Mac or something. Just very just basic, simple stuff. Songs like “Twice” and “Private Spies”—very straight ahead. At that point I was so pissed off at the band. I was like, you know what, I’m just going to write for myself and not think about band stuff. Then I got frustrated, so I dropped it all together. But I knew I was going to have to get back to them eventually. Two years ago was the time.
And how old are you now?
When you were going through all this turmoil with the Rods, you were in your late 20s?
It was very messy at the end. You were dropped by your label. You scrambled to replace your original drummer, your hometown Ohio friend Christopher McGuire, with Dave King. So do you remember the headspace you were in when you play these songs now? Because they sound happy, but lyrically, they’re tempered by this sense of paranoia. They’re poppy songs that sound like the other shoe’s about to drop.
Exactly. I guess if I had any projection of it all, I was writing outside the group. I was definitely trying to escape.
Sure you’re outside the group, but aren’t you always in your own head?
I can’t write really any other way. And I was being honest with myself, I really wanted to simplify things. I didn’t think a lot of the technicalities that we had in the group were necessary, but when it came time to record, it was always an obstacle to work around.
Is that because you had such incredible players? Like Christopher, your drummer, or like your brother Ev, who played guitar—both of them were such virtuosos.
That’s exactly the truth.
So were you always trying to build room to showcase their talents in your songs?
Absolutely. I had to. I mean, it was the only way to write a hundred percent of the material and let them feel as though they’re still part of the group. I had to make it feel inclusive.
You didn’t want them to lose interest.
Exactly. So you had to play into that psychologically. But it backfired when it came time to split up royalties. They get so used to these parts, they forgot that they didn’t write them. And they’ll be, like, “hey, where’s my 25 percent?” I kind of shot myself in the foot. And that happens to a lot of stuff I’ve done. I spend so much time behind the scenes working on other people’s parts, making artists shine in their best light. I want them to play to their maximum potential. That’s my goal. And whether they know it or not, I feed into that so much that it actually does backfire. I’ve lost a lot of things I deserve because I can’t say, “no, you didn’t write that,” because then it’s just a fistfight. And we’ve gotten into physical fights over those splits. It was a downward spiral.
Wasn’t your older brother a musical prodigy on the saxophone as a kid?
He went to Peabody Conservatory of Music. He went to a Johns Hopkins program in Baltimore that was audio engineering, performance, music performance, double major thing.
How needy was he in 12 Rods?
Well, when it came time to decide who produced the record, or credentials regarding studio stuff, it was a little bit of an argument, because he would demand production credits.
Can we just go back all the way to the beginning—your father was a professor of jazz where you grew up in Ohio, and your brother was a conservatory sax player. And you had access to those worlds, but you were the punk rock skateboard kid.
Yeah. I would skate four to eight hours a day, and then at night, I would go to my dad’s office to this big old percussion room that I had access to. As a teenager, in high school and in junior high, it was an incredible privilege. I literally spent another four hours practicing on a timpani or something. And it was a completely different part of my mind that didn’t connect at all with punk rock or skateboarding, it was very academic music. And I didn’t relate to it at all. But that never occurred to me until 12 Rods came around, and I realized I had to find some balance between the two worlds—I had to be a proficient musician, but I didn’t want to have this air of academic pretension. I wanted to be real.
And 12 Rods is a marriage of those two worlds while still trying to impress your dad.
Exactly. And it took many, many albums until I could impress my dad.
Your father was a professor of jazz at Miami of Ohio. Doesn’t he live in Minneapolis now?
He’s retired now. It’s amazing—he’s pushing 80, but he runs the Twin Cities Trumpet Ensemble, which is a 30-piece trumpet ensemble. And he gets these motherfuckers together twice a week, and he doesn’t pay for shit. I mean, he’s just so social and he’s such a good stage person. The college loved him because he would recruit kids all over the place because he was just this magnetic person. He’s able to get 24 to 30 people together twice a week to rehearse trumpets, and these are the best players in town. And I have a problem getting four people together in the same room every other week.
When was he finally like, “son, this sounds interesting”?
I think the Pytch stuff. He really, really enjoyed Parallel Murderverse. He liked the c.Kostra records. That stuff, he was, like, “oh, wow.” And then this last 12 Rods record. With this record, he’s actually naming songs to me.
So he wasn’t onboard with 12 Rods until this album?
He respected it. But at our reunion show in 2015, he was there for two songs and then he left. He just couldn’t stand either the pitch of my voice, or something else that was just too rugged for him to handle. He just doesn’t like that sort of a musical environment. He just took off, didn’t say bye or anything, didn’t call me.
Irish goodbye at your own show.
Yeah. It’s kind of the guy he is. I’m like, “Dad, it’s cool.” It’s always been like that, whatever. But he’s going to come to the show on Friday and he might be right in the middle. He really genuinely likes the record. He’s very proud of it, he tells his friends about it and stuff. I’m like, “wow, Dad, you never were like this.” It’s amazing.
So this is the first 12 Rods album he’s ever liked?
He loves it. And it’s great, because honestly, it makes me feel accomplished, finally. As much as I wanted to divert from my dad’s music—fuck you, Dad, I’m doing my own thing!—of course, I had to impress him. It was a deep urge. I mean, everything I learned about music come from him: How to swing, how to count, how to think about theory, how to sing, how to record, how to splice tape—all that just comes from him, literally. My mom taught me how to make four tracks. My parents were a huge influence on what I do now. In fact, I used my dad’s tape machine, the machine he used to record his stuff. The tape machine I used for Pytch was my mom’s. It was her last four track before she died.
When did she pass?
She passed in 2005. She had cancer.
Your brother hasn’t been in 12 Rods for years. Is he still in your musical life?
Well, he did help with the whole Pytch, c.Kostra thing. And he asked me to make a demonstration of it. And that turned into, “oh, play this show because we’re having a release party for this app.” And I’m, like, oh, okay.
So he’s a brilliant engineer.
Yes. He’s a brilliant programmer, engineer, technician, performer. I mean, he’s worked for NASA, he’s worked for Apple. He invented the very first MIDI to iOS interface at Apple behind doors guarded by armed guards. I asked him what he’s doing, he’s like, “it’s classified.” And I’m, like, dude, that’s fucking sick.
Is he in town, too?
Yeah. He has three kids in South Minneapolis. He got so burned out. He was such a prodigy that he honestly hates music. He started making podcast software and he’s killing it in the game.
Did you ask him to take part in this new version of 12 Rods?
In the infantile stages of trying to think about am I going to do this 12 Rods thing again live, I asked him:“are you interested in playing?” He’s, like, “hell no.” And it kind of took the wind out of me a little bit. I’m, like, fuck, the first person I asked to come back just denied me. Then I was, like, fuck everyone else.Because everyone virtually has also quit music or moved out of town. Bill [Shaw], Matt [Foust], I don’t know where the hell Dave [King] is, Ev’s still in town. I have no idea where Jake [Hanson] is. Old members are in Cincinnati and so forth. And Chicago.
I hear he bounces between here and Ohio.
So you played this for Ev and that’s about it?
Yeah. Ev said he was impressed at how good the performances were.
So where did you record this record?
In this room downstairs. I mean, we have a rehearsal space on the first floor. There’s an apartment right above it, so you have from 12:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. or something like that. I just brought my drums downstairs and got an eight-track cassette. And I have some shitty $3 Sony microphones you’d find in a thrift store. But these bad mics sound great on a little cassette.
So it’s all you.
A hundred percent.
And these are all skills that you’ve accumulated over the years.
Correct. I mean, I’ve learned how to master, how to engineer, but everything was learned. Though I learned the root of it from Ev. I mean, Ev really did it in 12 Rods. I was looking over his shoulder the entire time. So when he left, I was like, I can take over from here.
These songs sound so good. And in our GarageBand/Ableton landscape, “overproduced” is no longer as much of an epithet. But if you’re going for perfection, can’t you gradually abstract yourself from the original emotion?
I’ve thought heavily about that. And honestly, I’ve never ran into that problem. Because when I’m singing it’s such a struggle anyway. I’m not a natural singer—every breath and every vocal sound that I make, it’s hard. So I’m, like, okay, I’ve got to emote because it’s the only way it’s going to come out. Because I don’t naturally want to do this, but I know what I have to do technically to do it, so it’s going to sound like emotion. But it’s a struggle as hell.
And you always have an ironic attitude in your lyrics. Enough of a detachment to prevent you from just bleeding all over the song, so to speak.
Right. There’s a point where I just know like, okay, if I say one more word in this line, it’s going to get pretentious.
It’s going to get corny.
Get corny and this and that. Working at the Kitty Cat Club for 17 years, watching three to four bands a night fail or succeed, I’m not just doing sound. I’m totally dissecting everything about it in my mind. And when it came time to do something new, I was like, I know what this town needs. I did something like c.Kostra because there’s nothing like that, and I know what these people would respond to because I’ve seen it all.
12 Rods has a maniacal audience—in 2015, your fans filled First Avenue 15 years after you broke up. So how do you square up the expectations of your older fans with potential new listeners?
Well, that’s the thing, a lot of this excitement that I’ve been hearing secondhand, mainly through people in New York or online, is coming from younger kids. I mean, on Reddit there’s a virtual community of people talking about 12 Rods and these kids are 14 years old.
I went to The Cure and there were a lot of older folks, but I was shocked at the number of young goths. Is the TikTok generation hungry for Gen X shit that sounds real?
Well, I think our history with Pitchfork especially has longevity. I think that story gets reposted, it gets talked about a lot, and that has a lot to do with people of today giving a shit about us at all. I mean, we might have had some interesting music, but if it weren’t for the internet communities and the bulletin boards…
You mean like the fact that Pitchfork gave you the first perfect 10 ever, and then eventually removed the review?
Stuff like that.
That was just Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber trying to run away from his own provincialism though, right? That kind of an inadvertent internet conspiracy seems to hold the imagination of a segment of the terminally online.
It has. Most definitely. And there’s other stuff—like Todd Rundgren being thrown in there. He just got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So people start talking about 12 Rods on his board a little bit. And I think just an accumulation of gossip has helped 12 Rods stay somewhat relevant.
Because it becomes mythology.
Yeah, whether it’s even true or not, there’s just enough content there for people to idealize who we were. It’s amazing the stories I hear from people who have this preconceived idea of who I am. I was in Madison and this young journalist just came up right up to me and says, “you’re the reason Pitchfork sucks.” I’m like, what the fuck does that mean? He says “when they took you off Pitchfork, that was the first time people detected that people started hating Pitchfork.” And I don’t know if it’s true or not.
I started to resent Pitchfork when they would build a band up, like Tapes n Tapes, in one review, and then burn them down with their next review. It was such a cynical formula.
It was right around when they had that power that they took off our best scores and left only our worst scores up. It was a big moment of contention not just for us, but for a lot of people. I guess people saw that as being off-putting enough to be, like, okay, this is a story. And I think between the ’90s and the 2000s, there were so many ups and down, it was chaotic for a lot of artists, including myself. People saw me go through this horrible time, and now we have this social media that lays it out all on the line. People think I wanted to kill myself all the time. Yeah. I said some things here or there, but never in a serious tone.
Some of your own songs make you seem like a sad guy.
We all have issues and that’s who I am. And even though I might not have intended to be portrayed like that, I think that’s just how I cornered myself. And not to say that’s what I have to live up to, but I think this record has to graduate from that. And I do think lyrically and musically, it expresses hey, man, I actually got it together and things are okay. It represents a very modern period and it represents the time it could have been from as well. And I think people will see that as a positive tribute to my mental health because it came out good and nothing’s really awkward about it. So I’m very proud of this record. I don’t care how much success it has, but I’m very comfortable in this being the last page of the 12 Rods story, for now. And I think it speaks to both new and older fans on a level that’s musical. I’m very surprised how many people say, “this sounds very modern, at the same time, it has this very vintage flavor to it.” That’s exactly what I was going for.
You’ve amassed a new band to cover these songs on Friday night, and to tour going forward.
Yeah. We have to learn, and you have to play them verbatim just like that, and in that way it feels like not that band. And it is, but of course it isn’t. Right now, we’re trying to figure out from each record which ones are appropriate and which ones we can play well. Some songs were written so much around a particular musician that it’s really hard—like, we can’t play “Mexico.” I’m not going to force you to play that crazy Christopher beat. But no one really knows who the original 12 Rods were. People say, oh, “it’s not the original 12 Rods, why aren’t you playing with the original members?” You never saw the original members, so it’s just another vehicle. And I will never have a problem with it again. We can look back and laugh about it because we don’t have any financial ties that span back that far. I did everything I needed to do to rectify my spiritual musical trajectory. And I knew that this would happen at some point. I didn’t think it would be happening this early, but I guess I’m of that age. And I’ve bottomed out so much emotionally and I’ve come up just enough to where I am a better person. I mean, even physically, I think I can articulate better. And I respect it, that had to happen. I’m not going to deny that everything that went bad about that band was a learning experience that I had to go through. And it’s brilliant, it really is.