The Village Voice called them “America’s Radiohead.” Pitchfork gave their EP a perfect 10.0 rating. Richard Branson’s V2 Records signed them around the same time it took in the White Stripes and Moby.
So how come more people haven’t heard of 12 Rods?
“They were ahead of their time in too many ways,” said bassist Matthew Foust, who played with the arty, noisy, none-of-the-above Minneapolis rock group in the late 1990s and watched with deflated amazement as his former bandmates failed to get more attention for their albums.
Foust isn’t alone in his flabbergasted memory. One high-profile musician who agrees with him is taking action: Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame is reissuing 12 Rods’ 2002 swan song, “Lost Time,” Jan. 20 on his boutique label Chigliak Records, including the album’s first-ever vinyl release.
The reissue prompted 12 Rods to book its first gig in 10 years, happening Friday at First Avenue in Minneapolis. True to form, the band isn’t going about its reunion in a conventional way. Ten different members will take the stage at different points, a nod to the different eras of the group’s 12-year run.
“This is going to be a one-time event, so it only seemed right to be all-inclusive,” said singer/guitarist Ryan Olcott, who prophesied this reunion format back in August 2004 when the band played its farewell show (also at First Ave). He said then, “I wouldn’t even know which lineup we would put together for a reunion.”
Last week, Olcott laughed at that old quote. “I still have the same hang-up, but we figured out a way around it,” he said.
For the past month or so, he and his brother/bandmate Ev Olcott (keyboardist and guitarist) have been pairing up with the various ex-members for rehearsals.
“Getting 10 busy guys together to rehearse hasn’t been easy,” Ev Olcott said, “but once we figured out a schedule it’s been great.”
The entourage includes two of the most reputable drummers of local note, Dave King (Bad Plus, Happy Apple) and Christopher McGuire (John Vanderslice, Kid Dakota). McGuire was with the Olcotts when they moved to Minneapolis from Ohio in the early ’90s. King was part of 12 Rods’ early-’00s lineup with bassist Bill Shaw and a then-babyfaced guitarist named Jacob Hanson (later of Halloween, Alaska, Haley Bonar and the Pines). Friday’s show will also feature bassists Matt Flynn and Tal Tahir and drummer George Marich.
“The first rehearsal or two were pretty aggravating, because when you haven’t played the songs in 10 years it’s a slow process trying to play through them,” Ryan Olcott admitted. “But then the muscle memory started to kick in, and we didn’t have to think so much. That’s really when it started to get fun again.”
Still full of ‘Anxieties’
Fun is not a word often associated with the 12 Rods story. Musically, its mix of noodling prog-rock, roaring fuzz and nervously dramatic vocals — with traces of future indie big-wigs such as Built to Spill, Modest Mouse and TV on the Radio — had a wild ebb-and-flow quality laced with Ryan Olcott’s angst-ridden songwriting style.
Professionally, 12 Rods has been held up as a poster child for bands mistreated or at least misplaced by bigwig managers and major record companies in the post-Nirvana alternative rock boom. After generating a buzz with 1998’s “Gay?” EP, V2 jumped at signing the band but never quite got them, nor got behind them.
“I learned a lot about the music business then, and one of the things I learned is I would never choose to go into this business again,” said Ev Olcott. He now runs Audiofile Engineering software company with Foust.
The biggest misstep came in 2000 when V2 paired 12 Rods with A-list producer Todd Rundgren and spent loads of (recoupable) money sending them to Hawaii to record 2000’s “Separation Anxieties” — an album that earned a meager 2.0 review from Pitchfork.
“All he would do was press the ‘record’ button and go back to doing crossword puzzles,” said Ev Olcott, who, like his brother, wound up producing records for other bands.
“Some of those songs are good, but Todd Rundgren did the absolute worst job possible with that record,” Ryan Olcott sneered. “I would straight-up re-record that record before I’d reissue it.”
After “Anxieties” tanked and V2 dropped the band, the Olcotts charged on to make one last album. Ryan Olcott described “Lost Time” as “our attempt to overcome the industry on our own.” The band self-released the record, which is common practice nowadays but was difficult to pull off then.
Still, “Lost Time” was an artistic triumph and turned on at least a few latecomers, including Vernon.
“12 Rods came into my ears way too late,” the Eau Claire native told the Current (89.3 FM) last year. “I was a senior or whatever in college. I had this notion that Ryan was on some pop [stuff] that no one had ever done before. Chordal structure, movement, was so fresh.”
While he’s equally excited about tearing through older material on Friday, Ryan Olcott thinks it’s fitting that “Lost Time” is the cause célèbre for the reunion. The band’s frontman virtually quit guitar-rock after that album to experiment more with electronic music, working as Foodteam, Mystery Palace and his latest project, c.Kostra.
“Making that record was a really depressing time for me because of everything that went down,” he said. “At the same time, I felt like I was coming to my own on ‘Lost Time.’ It’s my favorite of the records, the one I really wish more people had noticed.”
It’s never too late for that.