This is Going to be Ryan Olcott’s Year: An Interview

“I felt awkward and weird most of the time because I didn't know shit, but now I know shit,” Ryan Olcott tells me, referring to how much has changed since he and his band, 12 Rods, last released new music. “My Year (This is Going to Be)”, came as a happy surprise to a devout, yet ever-growing fan base upon its release back in April; being the first new 12 Rods single in over 20 years.  I had the opportunity to talk with the Minneapolis musician, producer, singer, and lyricist over what lapsed into a two-hour phone call to inquire about his latest album If We Stayed Alive, releasing July 7.

The last anyone heard from 12 Rods was back in 2017 with Accident’s Waiting to Happen, a documentary chronicling everything from the band’s formation, the years they spent churning out some of the sickest, genre-defying music of the ‘90s, and regrettably to their disbandment; alongside the band’s commentary with the perspective of little more than a decade later on all that transpired. The end of the documentary sees a crestfallen Ryan, clearly in pain over the disbandment: what he then believed was 12 Rod’s fate.

Though before there were gnawing feelings of failure that would deter Ryan and the band from releasing new music for decades, there were the ‘90s. There were small punk bands scorning big labels, and then signing with them—there was feeling invincible. And so in 1992 when Ryan (vocals, guitar, synthesizer) joined his brother Evan Olcott (vox, synthesizers, guitar), Matt Flynn (bass), and Christopher Mcguire (drums), they would form 12 Rods; and within the next eight years, things would look up for the band. They would go on to self-release Bliss (1993) and then be the first American band to sign with V2 Records, with whom they’d release their first EP, gay? (1996) and their debut LP, Split Personalities (1998). All works would be met with positive acclaim.

Ryan recalls back to a moment in the late ‘90s when his friend Ryan Shreiber, the founder of Pitchfork, “had just started this online music thing and opened up his first generation laptop right in [his] room, and showed [him] that someone just rated [gay?] and gave it a ten.” There’s a telling silence that Ryan is back in time, being shown that review all over again. “How was anyone going to see any sort of credibility out of that? Even I brushed it off.” He continues,“we’re the reason people start picking on Pitchfork, because there was this period when they got corporate and big. It was the specific moment when they dropped us and people thought that was a low blow.” To the extent that even strangers would freely share their Pitchfork contempt with him, regaling me of the story where he was once “cornered in a club when a journalist nearly yelled in [his] face about how 12 Rods is the reason why Pitchfork sucks.” This was the moment when 12 Rods’ stature began to dawn on him, having realized “that [the 10-star review] had gone way deeper than [he] thought [12 Rods] dug.”

Within seemingly a blink of an eye, the new millennium reared its uncertain head. "All of the sudden there's Napster and the internet, and the major labels are freaking the hell out”, Ryan tells me. “They were starting to ask stuff of us that was way beyond our job descriptions, like how we would make the V2 website, or they’d ask us to figure out how to do merchandise sales on the internet”; artists even then weren’t sufficiently supported. “When they were asking us those sorts of favours we thought ‘yep it’s over, they have no idea what the future holds.’”

It was during this time Pitchfork would write about 12 Rods again since retracting the first 10-star review. Their 2000 release, Separation Anxieties, was not so much reviewed but disparaged with a rating of 2 stars and some petulant similes. The Accidents Waiting to Happen documentary gives fans a glimpse into the band’s faltering, hinting it was partly due to a lack of adequate support. Despite investing in the help of renowned producer Todd Rundgren (who has worked with names such as The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and The Psychedelic Furs), the production for Separation Anxieties was left in the band’s hands instead. “We had to teach him how to work Pro Tools and we had to sneak in [the studio] on the off hours to do the editing ourselves because he didn’t know how,” Ryan reveals, despite knowing “no one will ever really believe [him].” All factors combined would lead to V2 Records dropping 12 Rods, to instead sign more palatable acts such as The White Stripes and Moby. The documentary also gleans how at only 25 years old he had to bear the brunt of 12 Rods’ fallout and lack of commercial success; of his “life and dreams [feeling] shot to shit, that all hope [was] gone.” Moreover, he had to take responsibility for the bankruptcy all on his own as the rest of the band had already bowed out. No one can point fingers at Ryan for his disheartened disposition, but only sympathize with his hardships of being left to clean the mess of bankruptcy and of the shattering, hopelessness that ensued from the fallout; a mess that would take him decades to sift through.

Talking with me on the phone now, however, is a much more optimistic Ryan. When I bring up the 360 degree change in mindset within the last few years from when the documentary was released up until now, he chuckles in a slightly embarrassed acknowledgment of his past reservations. From cursing life, fans, and 12 Rods as a whole, he states, “the documentary stopped so abruptly and it had this tight framework of what people perceive us as and there’s a lot more to the story.” The impassioned sentiments fans saw in the documentary are a candid glimpse into the reality of being utterly disheartened, and how visceral feelings of shame and failure can be. 

But now Ryan tells me, “[he’s] shutting all that old stuff out.” That “[he] still [has] issues, but they come out more colorful in songs and in different metaphors without sounding like ‘where I grew up’”; he says referring to the second track off of gay? and fan-favourite, “Make Out Music.” On it he sings, “I wish I didn't grow up / In the town that I grew up in / It kept me silent / It kept me stupid / Never fought back”; the consequences and isolation that stems from being unaccepted among one’s peers.  Or off of the same ep, take the song gaymo for instance, the western-influenced unrequited love song where in a somehow self-loathing yet simultaneously self-pityingly way he repeatedly sings, “everyone is cool except for me.” But luckily Ryan isn’t worried about any of that. “Lyrically, I don’t think the audience is going to miss that angst-y negativity that I was singing about at all, nor will they compare and contrast what I’m doing,” he asserts. “I think what they’re going to hear on the new album will supplement that void.”

And “My Year (This is Going to Be)” succeeds in doing just that. The song begins with lyrics questioning, “where did the last few years go?” The ensuing lyrics resolve, “they just disappeared into the candlelight”; the burning flame of hope he didn’t even realize was within himself all along.  “What I’ve been through has been tortuous,” Ryan says, “a kind of fucking living hell at times.” Except one would never have gleaned his past hardships from listening to the track, as they’re awash in rhythms deliquescent from their emanating warmth; the kind that elicit the absoluteness of a summer’s day and makes one realize the feeling is forevermore within every one of us. Although more than 20 years have passed since the last 12 Rods release, the song proves Ryan’s vocal delivery is as defiant and unrelenting as ever; making the gap of twenty years’ time nonexistent.

[“If We Stayed Alive”] is a literal statement of ‘this is what the record would have sounded like if 12 Rod’s did stay alive.’” Even if Ryan did the record himself, he tells me, “it’s exactly how [he] think[s] a 12 Rods record should’ve sound like to begin with.” Back then, “we wanted synths, we wanted samples, and all this production value for a reason that made more sense back then that doesn’t make any sense today to me.” He continues, “there were a lot of bands we wanted to model ourselves to sound like because we were just kids who liked certain bands and wanted to sound like them, but we’re so past that point.” Now, however, Ryan is writing for the music rather than writing for an aesthetic; being free from the impositions of the ‘90s. Back then, “it was just layering for the sake of layering because we didn’t know that our parts we’re bad. You could bury your vocals, you could pull some My Bloody Valentine tricks and it was in vogue to mumble your way through music because you didn't know what you were saying anyways.” With that, “vocals are much more present now and parts are simple. It’s not very messy, it’s very straightforward without being minimal.”

Ryan and the labels are finally “seeing eye to eye and making calls every day.” He knew deep down that it was time to release the album, as “everything fell into place really quick.” After finishing the record, it only took him six hours before he was signed to two labels. “It was much more exciting of a period than any other record I’ve released,” the catharsis in his voice speaking for itself. He’s hoping that he with the new album, he can live off music again; and surely after all he’s endured, he’s earned the right. “I don't want the castle on the hill, or the luxury sports cars,” like any other artist, he “just want[s] to eat daily and not have to worry about [his] rent.”

“I’m really aiming to get to that this time around, I’ve had a lot of situations where I do a certain project and I hit rock bottom back to zero because something wasn’t right and it's usually some price tag of a manager I couldn't afford, or some PR stunt agent of sorts that would’ve helped me but I couldn't afford that.” He continues, “but now I do have the support again, and there's enough of it for me to go ‘You know what? Why won't it happen this time?’” The sepia hues of nostalgia tint his words ever-so-faintly as he explains, “it’s unlike the old days when we didn't have the internet and we’d have to call the manager and the label on payphones on the side of the road—it was that long ago.” But he’s careful in not fully being swept away in what once was, appreciating how there is now “a whole new era of communication where [he] really feel[s] like [he] can level with all the staff and everyone involved all the time.” He fully returns to the present and exasperates, “it’s a world of difference.”

Ironically enough this early internet, Pitchfork history 12 Rods made—the same thing that may have played a part deepening the impact of their unravelling, is also the same thing that brings a lot of the youths to 12 Rods’ music. “There were a lot of people out of nowhere that became interested in 12 Rods over the past few years and it’s really wild to see because we haven’t played in years.” Among these people Ryan tells me, are “the kids [who] are reading up on all this stuff, writing about it and listening to it”, who came out of the woodwork sometime after 12 Rod’s Lost Time reissue in 2015. “It doesn’t feel weird but it just feels like ‘wow either these kids are really catching up and evolving or it’s just I don’t know…,” the shock that 12 Rods’ music lives on in the harbingers of the future, still seizing him.  Except these younglings don’t solely listen to 12 Rods just because of a 10-star review, they stay for the music. “When people write to me and tell me their experiences through [my] music of who they are and what they feel,” he says, “it blows my mind.” He continues, “the things they come up with, it’s very profound information and it feels like I’ve saved a lot of lives— it feels like I’ve changed people’s lives.”

Throughout our conversation, Ryan realizes that all of his projects begin because he subconsciously feels an obligation to his communities. “I'm always trying to write for someone or something else,” remarking how even 12 Rods is the product of the same ethos, never forming in the first place if it weren’t for their friend needing a band to play at a party. “I’m given this strange task to make a musical project to make something for an event and it ends up being the next thing I’m doing for the next 8 years.” I think he quips when he says, “if someone wants me to write a bossa nova song, or they want me to write a string arrangement I’ll learn how to do it in a couple days.” Except his solemnity speaks for itself when he insists he’ll go beyond their expectations.  “It’s fun to approach making music like that because I have a reason,” he says; highlighting how people and our relationships with and to others is what makes life meaningful, and worth living. 

Now Ryan knows he can do this right; not solely for his own redemption, but to make the former 12 Rods lineup, and the ever-growing fan base proud. Confident in his abilities as a musician, producer, and lyricist more than ever these days, he’s able to show up for all the other communities that believe in him; knowing there are others who do believe in him. For instance, “LGBTQ+ communities, and all these other communities really identify with 12 Rods”, he ruminates.  “I’ve only heard this and I’ve seen things online but some furries—,” he begins, cutting himself off to ask whether or not I know who furries are. Chuckling, I reassure him I am aware of furries. He continues, “I don’t believe it but I’ve had a couple of furries tell me that 12 Rods is the first official ‘furries band’ or something like that”, due to the Lost Time album cover prominently featuring the head of a dog. “This community in their minds, all probably think we’re furries too but that culture has embraced us, and that's dope!” Even if Ryan and the rest of the band aren’t furries, the invaluable power of support and what it means to feel connected with others is evinced. He continues, “whatever culture it may be, as long as it’s a loving, positive culture and not hate related, fuck yeah!” It really does take a village.

“I'm getting closer now to people and community than I ever have before because of [this new album], and what's more important than that?” Ryan ponders. “I don't know. It’s pretty beautiful, I guess. And I never thought it’d happen through 12 Rods.”


Pre-order If We Stayed Alive on 12 Rod's Bandcamp here!