The Rise, Fall, and Return of 12 Rods

The 2023 lineup of 12 Rods.
The 2023 lineup of 12 Rods. Photo by Efren Maldonado.

Imagine: You are a high school senior in a college town in Ohio. It's the spring of 1992 and by now, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has dominated airwaves for half a year. To form a band at this time is to stare at a blank canvas on which you can paint whatever pigments you choose. You've just started one of your own, and your first gig will be the big graduation party a classmate is throwing in her backyard in two weeks.

A few short years fly by. When it becomes clear that you've developed a sound of your own, you and your bandmates—by now, including your older brother—move out west to the same city where Prince was raised and where The Replacements reigned supreme. With a few house shows and self-produced demos already under your belt, you immerse yourselves in the Minneapolis music scene. Before too long, you release a six-track EP with a slyly provocative title. A little website called Pitchfork gives it their first perfect 10/10 score, and later, The Village Voice predicts you are destined to become the "American Radiohead."

Soon, your band becomes the first stateside act signed to a burgeoning British label owned by a media magnate. Their team spends a third of your advance flying you out to Hawaii to record your next album with a beloved superproducer. He spends most of your six weeks together doing crossword puzzles and drinking beer behind the boards, leaving you to edit your own takes. The resulting record is a commercial failure; conflict between bandmates becomes tense enough for your label to send you to group therapy. After they drop you, you dust yourself off and you resolve to take matters into your own hands: one more self-released record with a change in lineup, and you're out. It's a means of waving the middle finger at the industry that wronged you.

"My Year (This Is Going To Be)", from the 2023 12 Rods album If We Stayed Alive.

Long after the dust settles, after nearly two decades of steady work as a producer and engineer in the Twin Cities, you are surprised to discover some unfinished band demos during the early months of the pandemic. When you realize how good they sound, you go through the motions of recording all the parts yourself and proceed to finish your first album in 21 years. As if by some miracle, it sounds like no time has passed.

What with all of the music industry's revolving doors and capricious changes, the particulars of the above story could have happened to any songwriter worth their salt. All the same, this particular rise, fall, and reinvention belongs to Ryan Olcott, founder and frontman of the feloniously underrated band 12 Rods. Look no further than the aforementioned EP Gay? (1996) for an introduction to their caustic and cathartic sound, marked by a melodic mix of ethereal guitars, propulsive percussion, and a truly addicting element of harmonic surprise.

After disbanding in 2004, 12 Rods evolved to become somewhat of an open secret amongst internet crate-diggers and Midwestern music scenesters, the likes of which included a young Justin Vernon. "I was a senior or whatever in college," the Bon Iver bandleader once said of his introduction to the band. "I had this notion that Ryan was on some pop shit that no one had ever done before. [The] chordal structure and movement was so fresh." He later reissued their last album, 2002's Lost Time, through his personal imprint Chigliak in 2015—the release of which was celebrated with a reunion show at First Avenue in Minneapolis with all the members of their various lineups.

Eight years on from that one-off gig, Olcott is ramping up to release If We Stayed Alive, an airtight, self-produced seven-song cycle with the same magnetic energy they possessed on the record that preceded it twenty years prior. But make no mistake, this isn't your average indie rock revival story: Ryan chose to record all of the parts himself, and the title of the album attempts to answer the question of where the band might have gone next had they not broken up.

"I never had any intention of doing what I'm doing now, making the record or even regrouping," Olcott said to me over Zoom. "It's pretty much a response to all the excitement I've received since I walked away. I wanted to make this record sound exactly as if it were to come after the last one."

Over the course of two hours, Olcott and I reflected on the making of If We Stayed Alive, the initial 12 Rods lineup's chaos and creation, and the difference between doing it yourself and being swept up in starmaker machinery.

If We Stayed Alive is out today via American Dreams and Husky Pants Records.

12 Rods perform "Telephone Holiday" on public access television, 1999.

You formed your band when you all were still attending high school in Oxford, Ohio. Once you had a few shows and demos under your belt, you relocated to Minneapolis. I would love to hear more about these humble beginnings.

You might know that we created the group on a whim, pretty much for a party: two weeks to make pretty much a band and create any sort of content to play. I was a drummer at that point, getting ready to go to music school as a professional performance major. None of us really sang or played guitar or anything like that, and our friend knew we were musicians so they said, "Hey, you guys should be a band." I had to realize that, "Well, no one's going to step up to the mic," so I forced myself to do it.

When we got together for the first time, we didn't know what to do—we just jammed, if you will. And I didn't want to be really a jam band, so right away I guess I was like, "You know what, one of us has got to take charge here." So I just went home and started writing. It blows me away to this day that I managed to write, I guess up to 10 to 12 songs in two weeks, taught myself guitar, taught myself how to sing and put on a show. From then on, it was just such a zone that it really distracted me from going to music school being a performance major—you spend two weeks doing just that and you really learned to like it. And this party was a lot of fun. We were probably really not the greatest show but it was what it was, everyone seemed to be entertained, and got those hooks real deep.

I didn't stay at school for too long because I was pretty much lured back by my bandmates to just be a band. At that point, I was at college—my brother Ev, who got an engineering degree at Peabody Conservatory—said that there was this producer who wanted to hear the four-track demos we made at that time. He really liked it, so he called me out of nowhere while I was at school in Chicago and he was like, "Hey, what's your plan for your future and career, songwriting, producing? What do you have in mind?" I'm like, "Well, I'm going to school." And he's like, "Well, just so you know, we really like your stuff up here and we think you're really welcome," and it was a really kind of vague kind of open-ended kind of discussion.

The first 12 Rods tape, Bliss, released in 1993.

After I dropped out of DePaul, we raised a little money to go up to Minneapolis and recorded at Metro Studio B. The Bliss tape came out of that—it was a weekend-plus worth of days and that was such a massive profound experience for me. From that point on I was like, "Man, this is awesome. I love studios, this is great." Christopher McGuire, our original drummer, moved up there about a year later. I had about a year to settle back in Oxford, then move back up to Minneapolis with my brother.

I came into Minneapolis at a sweet point of the '90s where bands were great, you can do anything in a band as long as you're articulate with it or you had this very concise idea, you could do anything you wanted. And it was great because at that point I was like, "You know what, we have all the faculties to do all this stuff, we have to make a style, we have to decide what we want to do." And I'm like, "Ev, let me just figure this out. I'll write and I think I can do something." For some reason I had these ideas and I'm able to write all this material without knowing how I did it. It was nothing expected.

The year after the move to Minneapolis—this is 1996 by now—you release the Gay? EP which was my personal introduction to your band long after the fact. The first time I heard "Mexico", I instantly latched onto the element of compositional surprise central to your songcraft and sound. Within all your work, there seems to be this delicate balance between the catchy and the unexpected when it comes to the way you write. I'm curious how you arrived at that.

I was heavily influenced by pop music and was very aware of its straightness—it could be cliche and you could see things coming. I also was very much into experimental music and was sensitive to arrangement values that would do something that would take those breaks and pauses within pop arrangements. I play the song and it's like "Yeah, it's comfortable music, but you know what? I'm not even going to finish the phrase, but I'm going to chop off and measure and jump into this next part that's going to drone for a bit."

I can't see why those parts were really written other than that it felt perfect at that point—being sensitive to the moment of writing in that element and realizing that the flow of my human experience right now, this would make it. I thought that was starting to be more accepted, especially in the times of the '90s when there's a lot more experimentalism in pop music. I figured I could use what I knew and took my understanding of arrangement to that level. At a certain point there's a flow to my writing where I would just write like that and I just trusted my gut all the time. It was just trusting your gut. If I would smile during a part I would write or have an idea that made me laugh, I wouldn't just blow that off. That was pretty much what I had to follow from the get-go and it turned into this style, I guess.

"Mexico", from the 1996 12 Rods EP Gay?

Gay? famously became the first 10 given out by Pitchfork in the publication's infancy, long before Radiohead, Kanye, or Fiona Apple followed in those footsteps. Founder Ryan Schrieber was barely the legal drinking age when he first caught you live, and Jason Josephes wrote that he had "faith in the future of music" upon hearing the EP in his glowing review. This was before Pitchfork earned their reputation as the notorious Condé Nast-owned starmaker machinery that they are today, but I wonder: at the time, did that review feel like a big deal and a taste of what was to come, or just the loudly sung praise of some Midwestern fanboys?

The latter, obviously. I remember Ryan Schreiber brought his laptop into my bedroom—we were pretty much friends at that point—and he was like, "Yeah, I just started this zine online." It just so happens one of the first reviewers was the Gay? EP and I looked at it and he was like, "Yeah, I gave it a 10." I'm like, "Cool." I mean, what am I going to do? It's like, "What's the standard here? Who's going to give this any clout?" It was a very nice gesture and of course, I just totally blew it off.

Later on, I'm seeing this Pitchfork stuff online run in the Y2K-ish area. And I was like, "What?" And I didn't realize that it became the new Rolling Stone or the Billboard of the internet and that was just more or less and I'm like, "You've got to be kidding me." And then of a sudden that 10 mattered that time. Then they removed it! I guess for some reason some gatekeeper decided it didn't meet the criteria.

I could only access the review via The Wayback Machine, if you're familiar with that archive…

Right, exactly. Of course I felt a little slighted. Way down the line, I was once touring with another band in Milwaukee or Eau Claire or something, I was cornered by a journalist and he was kind of drunk but he comes up to me and goes, "You're the reason Pitchfork sucks." And I'm like, "What the hell are you talking about?" And I was offended and he was like, "What I mean to say is that the moment they took that EP off Pitchfork is the point in which people turned against Pitchfork." People started to think that Pitchfork was just one of those big corporate magazines that everyone's going to start making fun of. And then, that was the actual definitive point of population turn on thoughts on Pitchfork.

Going back to the Gay? EP… I have to know where the name came from.

Well, Christopher and I at the time… we were not the straightest people I suppose. It was funny, it was kind of provocative and open to interpretation. It was on the edge of like, "What does that mean?" It's not derogatory on any level and it could be open-ended for interpretation.

Being queer myself, I've always had a soft spot for the ambiguity of that title. I always assumed that it was a boyish inside joke within the band.

It is, and at some point it didn't always fly like that. There was a time when even the LGBT community around here was confused and we were like, "No, we didn't mean anything bad." The LGBT publication Lavender in Minneapolis would refer to us as hets—it was like, maybe they thought they knew that maybe we were straighter than we had implied. We didn't mean to cause any friction but there was a small brief period like, "Man, that was probably a bad idea for a name." There wasn't any malintent or anything…

No, it was clearly a product of its time. Even if identification wasn't necessarily part of the equation, I know a number of younger queer listeners since then who feel very seen by that music.

Totally. It was one of those words that also we thought, "Hey, maybe this will actually get some attention…" The ambiguity level was just right at that moment in time.

It was around the time that Gay? came out that V2 Records entered the picture. You were the first American act they'd sign before they brought on The White Stripes or Moby, starting with a reissue of the EP before the 1998 release of Split Personalities, which contained fine-tuned versions of two of its standouts. You have said in retrospect that you knew the day you were signed that you were doomed. What was the energy like when they first entered your orbit and began courting you?

The late '90s lineup of 12 Rods. Photo by Daniel Corrigan, courtesy of 12 Rods.
The late '90s lineup of 12 Rods. Photo by Daniel Corrigan.

I mean, we were kids and it was exciting. We didn't realize that it was the end of that era, but in retrospect, it definitely was. We just figured this is how it's going to be forever, that people like us are going to be taken care of. There was a lot of money being thrown around still at that point. We just figured, "Hey, we made it." But the relationships between members were starting to change. I was just looking at that trajectory going, "Man, this is not going to be well." I just knew that somehow this was not going to last. It was all too good to be true and there's too many things that are just really messed up already. It probably began probably with that day we got signed. I think that was the moment I started really absolutely seeing personality shifts and frictions and ways that were just like, "Ooh," now people are really talking a little more serious about their money and wanting their money and if they don't get their money threats involved I'm like, "Whoa, dude."

I could have manifested that maybe a little too much because I was also starting to fall out of my love for rock and roll. I was really starting to understand and appreciate other electronic music and this and that and styles that we couldn't and weren't outfitted to do. And being under contract, I have to write a certain way and this and that so it was more so a few things that just I started subconsciously running away from.

I'll also point out that this is also the era before cell phones and real internet service or anything like that so we couldn't really communicate with your team members all the time. At best we had pagers and we would share them. So, talking with your manager, talking with your business managers, lawyers, it was just like you had to do that once a week in conference calls and that was a mess.

V2 was not prepared for the rise of the internet in the slightest. They had two years of this last tidbit moment then boom, the internet shoots them in the foot, they're left with the past and asking us if we could build our website. I'm like, "We're just this dumb band, you guys really don't know that much about the internet, you're asking us to build a V2 website? You got to be kidding us." And they're asking us how to deal with commerce online and we're like, "Really? I mean, we could figure it out but that's not exactly within our job description." It was just kind of, "Oh God."

The way that you're talking about it, it's really no different than the teams of young major label artists in the present begging for TikTok content.

Of course. But we were also the kids that were also bringing on the digital moment so we just somewhat feel responsible—we're making the first websites, but we just figured V2 would be on board but they were too old school to know what was going on so they just left us hanging in this stratosphere. It's funny how poised Ev and I maybe were to be a little more ingrained in those developments and the internets and commerce and so forth and social stuff. But I think I was so turned off by that point, by everything that was going on around us, we just ran for the hills.

The official video for "Split Personality" by 12 Rods, originally released in 1998.

After your first album cycle with V2, the label flies you out to record the next album, Separation Anxieties, with Todd Rundgren. On paper, the artist-producer pairing reads like a match made in power-pop heaven. What follows is the opposite: you arrive without a studio booked; when you finally set up in the basement of an orchid farm, he sets up a Pro Tools rig he's barely used before; he spends most of the sessions doing crossword puzzles and drinking beer instead of facilitating takes. I would imagine the disappointment in his underperformance was immense, but rather than dwelling on that, let's flip the script: back then, what would the band have looked for in a producer beyond an extra set of ears?

I was expecting to come in one morning and realize, "Hey, all my parts were re-performed," or, "Hey, there's a big orchestra on here," or some sort of massive arrangement that Todd would've took seriously, something that I would've come the next day and gone, "Well, he put a real Todd there, that legendary Todd thing, whatever it is where he would just rewrite the record or something." I kind of wanted that, maybe didn't need it, but that's the kind of level of performance I was expecting. I wanted that almost an aggressive relationship—maybe we'd be yelling at each other over arrangements. I wanted a heightened and evolved energy.

We just figured, "This is going to be a wild experience…" It was very passive and it just seemed like I was going into an old guy's studio in a basement. He really didn't care. And he just was like, "Okay, do another take if you want to." I'm like, "Well, do you know naturally, no, I don't want to." He did not make this the most exciting experience for me. I never said it like that, but it was just that, it was like maybe we both thought it deep that there's so much expectation on that level that we both just failed to meet it subconsciously. He was like, "Cool, things are sounding good." Never really pushed me at any level I'm just like, "Are you sure that's okay, Todd? I could probably do it better." He's like, "Ah, I think I got it." Okay Todd, we know how you work. You're going to work for five minutes and your things break down, you're going to call your Pro Tools helpline for the next three hours. It was basically day after day of that. We were ready to play and I expected way more of a workout mentally, physically, everything. I just knew that this record was just going to be like blah. Ev and I had to sneak in and try and edit some stuff if we could.

And by the end of the day, it was either like Todd masters it, the record or really and someone else to master for more money just in order to get some monitors we could practice through for rehearsals. We'll save ourselves $15,000 if we let Todd master it and we can buy this monitor system we need or whatever. And it came down to the fact and then we get the mastering back we're like, at the time we're just like, "Oh God, we shouldn't have done that because we ourselves were just let down by that as well." And it was just one after another just like, "God, why isn't anything just clicking here?" And at that point I'm just like, "I'm over, I'm done. This is it, I give up. I'm 25, now I have to give up this massive dream that I thought I was totally poised to make." And it was just really the darkest period in my life. My 20s and early 30s was just like trying to re-find something to do.

After being dropped by V2 and searching for a record label to release Lost Time, you ultimately decide to self-release the album in 2002. You've described the record as a "way to keep your chin up and do it out of the love of doing it", but also as a means of saying "fuck everybody, fuck this industry, I'm doing this myself". What did you take away from going the DIY route for that album after all you had been through?

If anything, it wasn't necessarily to show up V2 or show, "Hey, we can do it on our own on a public sense." For me it was a studio effort—that was the record where I became myself. I learned the most and was able to exemplify and represent what I was able to hear in my head and then replicate. To have the opportunity to use a pseudo-digital mainframe and non-linear editing and a DAW just enough to where I could do what I want for a change by myself without Ev.

It was a massive schooling undertaking that for me felt like I graduated. It was too late at night for my brother to stay up anymore, he was getting out of it. And for me to go, "You know what Ev, I'll be the one to stay up all night. I'll do it. You know what, I want to do this now that I have these abilities, I know just enough. Thank you Ev for teaching me everything, you probably know about this."

The fact that it wasn't on a label was irrelevant, I didn't really care. I didn't think any of our records really were heard by anybody anyway. So, I was like, "What's a record label doing in this day and age? What's a record label even mean anymore? We have this digital world now."

It was never a thing for me to go like, "I got to prove to the world that I'm still on a label." That wasn't the thing. It would've been nice to have a little more oomph behind it or someone to help get some PR for us, but we were just on the edge of that tail code of us going down in flames to where Pitchfork still wrote about us and we were still relevant just enough in magazines to where it was printed up here and there with reviews and this and that. But no, it didn't have the muscle. Up to that point, I didn't really care because that was going to be the last record.

"Fake Magic 8-Ball", from the 2002 12 Rods album Lost Time.

Once you decided to disband, you went on to work as a record producer in the Twin Cities and juggled a handful of other projects. Talk to me about that stretch of time.

As I said, I was very much into electronic music—it was an exciting time with the rise of Warp Records, Astralwerks and all those cool labels. Things we could do now on computers that are impossible to perform acoustically. If you could harness that, it's a whole new world of sound. I got into circuit bending. I had this project, Food Team, which turned into this band Mystery Palace… those were all experimental electronic groups I was developing. I was teaching myself hard techniques and giving myself challenges after challenges. I used those same techniques to become a producer to help develop and see and realize other musical groups very quickly in the studio—realizing them as a musician and what they're capable of doing and perfecting them in the best light possible.

In 2015, Lost Time was reissued, and you took the opportunity to play a one-off reunion show at First Avenue in Minneapolis that included all the members from the different eras of the band. What was the rehearsal process like? I imagine revisiting the tunes after that much time with everyone in the room was a trip.

It was hard. It was a massive undertaking. I never had everyone in the room at the same time, didn't have a big enough room but it was pretty divided into two different bands that I had to rehearse side-by-side. We had a little under two months to do that and it was tough. I had to of course arrange and get the bands together according to how well they liked each other anymore. It was such a fragile situation and even dividing the set list between band members was like walking on eggshells.

Some band members would feel slighted if we didn't play a certain song and I was like, "Man, it's better, it fits with this arrangement." And they're like, "Why?" I'm like, "Do I have to explain this why? You don't have to do all that sensitive sort of all that going on." It was tough of course, but they understood just enough. I was ultimately like, "You know what, let's just go with this, please understand my situation. It's a one-off, let's not get used to this anyway so just take it face value please." We got through it but it was hard. It was definitely brought on by the idea that Justin Vernon wanted to make this vinyl reissue.

How did the two of you cross paths? I know he's been a long time fan.

He's an Eau Claire kid and we've played Eau Claire a lot. A lot of my friends here in Minneapolis are from Eau Claire. He was never one of the kids I knew, but he was always like the second tie, a little more in the background. But one of the bands that we played with Amateur Love at the time and their other group at that point had Justin in it. We weren't really close at all, that's all I knew of him. I might have said hello to him once or twice at that point.

Years and years pass, he calls out of nowhere and wants to just reissue and we're like, "Cool." And then literally two weeks later he's huge. And we're like, "What? Is this the same Justin?" And we couldn't believe what was going on. He calls us back and goes, "Look man, I just got caught up with some stuff, I'm still really on doing this and blah blah blah, I'll be in touch." A year later he gets back to us and is still totally interested and ready to do it. At that point, because I have a measure of good faith like, "You know what, we'll do a reunion show." I knew it would be very difficult. You just threw yourself into it and it didn't feel like it's the right time or anything, but at the same time it kind of was. It's sort of a similar sort of situation with what this new record is…

Ryan Olcott.
Ryan Olcott of 12 Rods. Photo by Efren Maldonado.

That's a good segue. Let's finally talk about If We Stayed Alive.

So this record is based similarly to where it was one of those moments I had in my life where I knew I was going to do this. I had these demos and they were just the last songs that were just the most well-formulated and realized in the demo sphere. And I come across them on my computer like, "Man, they're pretty decent songs." There was a situation in my life a couple years ago where I was going to work on a record, had pretty much the rest of my year booked out for this project, and that fell through. So, on a whim I was like, "You know what, I have these songs and now would be a really good time."

I could feel a little air of people starting to talk about 12 Rods a little more and not as much hate online or around me that it's something I could do. I didn't want to make it too much about what I had been through. I just wanted to make this record sound exactly like if it were to come right after the last one. I mean, that's what they want to hear, it makes sense, why complicate matters?

Everyone who was in the band before left town, either quit music or had kids. My brother was one of them and I asked him, the only person I even asked I was like, "Ev, do you want to be involved with this project?" He's just like, "No, I don't." I'm like, "Oh, okay." That pretty much deflated me of wanting to even ask anyone else and everyone else was unattainable anyway so I was just like, "You know what, I'll just make it like a demo style but they'll be legitimately recorded."

All the drums were recorded on a four-track in a basement and we mic'd it up with Sony F series microphones, those tape microphones, you're going back to tape and that was a lot of fun. I wasn't doing that for textural reasons this time around, I was doing it more so for the convenience. I didn't want to deal with the DAWs, I just wanted to press play and I wanted it to be a foolproof recording and I could just take that tape, throw it on the computer, grid it out however I needed to. It's easy.

I did my guitar parts, bass parts, a little bit of keyboard, like it was nothing. It felt like the fastest record I ever recorded. It took me a little while to do the vocal stuff, just because the voice wasn't trained. It took a couple of hours a day of singing to get it close to where I wanted it. And at that point I felt like, "You know what, I'm already a better singer now." For whatever I've been through, I'm still a better guitarist than I was then, I'm still a better singer, and I'm even healthier. I'm 48 now and it just feels like I'm performing the way I used to.

I was listening to Lost Time and this new one back-to-back, and it weirdly feels like no time has passed.

That's great to hear, because that's what I was going for with the title—If We Stayed Alive—and that's what I'm doing just out of respect to the band. People wanted to hear more 12 Rods, and I was like, "You know what, I do have plenty of material," I'm not going to lie. There's much more like half-made demos that I could develop in the future, whether I'm rewriting or not. This was tentatively possibly the most lucrative thing that could happen at this point in my life. All that possibility has always kind of been there, but I didn't want to do it at all. I still don't want to do it to a certain extent, but now, all of a sudden I have a lot of things taken care of. And it's out of the love of the music and people, it's organic and I'm just like, so be it. As weird as it is to me, I'm going to just live up to it and have a good time with it.

When were the demos made?

Oh, those are about 22 years old. That was just after Y2K.

So this is the Lost Time era, the songs that didn't make the cut?

Some of those, maybe because I didn't make that record and stuff was written after that. We were just starting to perform a few of these songs live—not all of them—but the idea was that the next time we were going to get in the studio, they'd be on that record. It was pretty much on that track.

It wouldn't be a Reverb interview without a little bit of gear talk. One thing I noticed in the tech brief you sent over was that all the keyboard tracks were done with a Yamaha MU2000, a 20-year-old rompler. Was that always part of the rig?

That's a good theory, but no—we used Kurzweils back in the day. I've used K2500s which were much better machines, but the MU stuff is an extension of my circuit bending stuff I did with my Food Team project. I've gone through bending and modifying all these Yamahas—I have pictures of them online but they have probably 48 switches on them. But on this record, it was all the switches off—I realized over time it's a great machine by itself. They're very capable machines professionally—they were the secret weapons of producers in the '80s and '90s.

That said, I don't believe in an industry standard of instruments anymore. There's all sorts of glorious stuff happening all the time, but there's also gaps of intellectual voids that exist of people that just don't fully realize what these instruments that are linear can do, have done and developed. So, it's very easy for me to pick up one thing that's just totally just not even relevant to most people, period. Most people I show MUs to, professionals, they have no idea, they have never seen it before in their life. It's so fun to take any of them and just go, "You know what, I'll hold that one for this project," and to have the discipline to be able to do that. I have no hang-ups on playing really cheap equipment or disposable gear…

I see you were rocking the Line 6 digital amps!

They worked! Now, what's so un-punk about that? (laughs) If you guys think you have to spend $1500 to play this crappy old tube amp you think sounds good, you have no frame of reference. What's the difference?

Totally. What guitars are you playing on the record?

I have a lot of midsized offset Frankencasters. I have like ten Fender Toronados that I reface and put new pickups in. The Toronados never really came with the floating bridge, but I threw one on there. I have a white one that has P90s in it and I have an Aztec Gold one that has three PAFs in them that are all splittable. I can series-parallel all three of them, so I have, like, 200 different tone combinations with some switches. But I don't make them look like junk—I really respect the Leo Fender style of aesthetics of switches and what they're using for hardware.

There's a reason why those guitars are so ubiquitous.

Oh, they're beautiful. I probably have 15 or 16 offsets floating around. Some are Squiers, some are real Fenders, some are Mexican made. It doesn't really matter. They're all just vibes. You fix a few little components on or tune it up right, it's great really and it has the same vibe. The whole name branding and price gouging of things is so out of control. I've always thought that I can make my own thing, get exactly how I want it, it's going to have the same vibe. No one's going to know the difference. Mission accomplished.

If We Stayed Alive is being jointly released by Jordan Reyes and Ryley Walker, who run American Dreams and Husky Pants Records respectively. How did they enter your orbit?

Jordan was a guy I knew from the industrial and noise electronic scenes in Minneapolis here. A few years ago he moved to Chicago and we kept in touch, but now and again would drop a line. A year and a half ago, he contacted me and said that Ryley was coming through town to do a show at the Entry and he wanted me to show up. When I walked through the door, I was just ambushed by Ryley. He leaps out of nowhere and says, "Ryan, I love you!" It was absolute insanity, I was stunned.

That totally tracks. That man is just about the most dedicated esoteric '90s music head I know. He possesses a deep respect for the archive.

Right? I appreciate that. The fact that he puts that much love into my group was based on his taste. Anyway, but right before that, Jordan pitched to me at one point on the side, "If you're ever going to release anything 12 Rods, I'd love to hear it." I'm like, "Cool, whatever, don't really think much of it." Ryley asked me the same thing and I'm thinking to myself, "How rude would it be if I were to sign, be put on Ryley's label when Jordan asked me and also tipped me off to the show, which introduced me to Ryley," and tried to be like, "Hey guys, you know what? I'm so torn here 'cause you both want to put that, you guys seem so passionate about wanting to do this. I don't know what to do." They looked at each other like, "You know what, we'll both put it out." I'm like, "That's awesome, that's like the ultimate." It was such a beautiful situation. They've already pulled out more results than V2 ever did. I'm putting a lot of time into making a whole new 12 Rods band because they want me to tour. We have another show at First Avenue in July, and there will be more shows from there.

12 Rods perform "Make Out Music" at their 2015 one-off reunion show at First Avenue in Minneapolis.

Say Justin Vernon and his label never reached out, and that one-off show never came to fruition, but after all those years, you still stumble upon those demos. Do you think you ever would have gone down that rabbit hole? Did that reunion serve as an inevitable preface to resurrecting the project?

I think you're right. The band would have inevitably broken up regardless of the time. Even then after the show, I thought very heavily about recording the record that I just recorded now with the idea of getting the proper band back together, but that didn't pan out because I got tied up with other music. But it definitely embedded that seed. If I thought that much about it and everyone was psyched to do this newer material, then it just seemed like it was going to happen sooner or later. I think maybe people are much more… I don't know if "ready" is the word, but it's just been massaged just enough in the right ways throughout the course of the informational history and how it's leaked out.

To prepare to speak with you, I watched the Kickstarter-funded documentary about your band, Accidents Waiting To Happen. Towards the end of it, you liken your time in the band and the associated fallout to dealing with a bad marriage. It's an astute analogy considering what you were grappling with. Perhaps to end, now that this new record is nearly out of the oven and you've started this new chapter, how have things shifted?

Well, basically I'm never getting married! (laughs) It's literally and metaphorically. I'm just roaming around and I'm going to absolutely find time when the time's right and appropriate to get back to this. If I want to do pitch stuff next year, I'm just going to go there and say sayonara to 12 Rods for a while, but I don't have to work with anyone. It's not like a marriage anymore because I'm just a rogue lone soldier just pounding my way through the fields here, just trying to eat and figure it out.

I just think my style is just unconventional enough to a certain degree that it makes certain people uncomfortable. I've been told that point-blank, but I understand it. I can see what I'm throwing at you if you're not familiar with what I'm doing or it's a lot to grasp. But I try to do everything I can to objectively understand that position. I just got to stay out of the way and just be there when I think people want me around rather than force myself on anyone. But if that's what they want, then… sure!

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.