Robot with a soul

by Sean McGrath

Rebuking the stereotypical rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, local band 12 Rods know their roles

Description is tremendously difficult. Pegging down the sound of 12 Rods is about as hard to do as doing the Zangief 360 Piledriver in Street Fighter 2. In fact bassist Bill Shaw prefers Ryu’s haduken to the impossible endeavor of self-description. It’s quite a task to pigeonhole the band, but perhaps therein lies the allure of 12 Rods.

Comprised of virtuoso brothers Ryan and Ev Olcott, adroit Bill Shaw, and “wunderkind” Dave King on drums, the band has been turning heads and heightening their local visibility with their self-described “Sci-Fi R&B.”

According to King, “It’s not party strip-club music. It’s not even party college-drinking-town music at all, so it’s weird when we find ourselves in these situations. In fact, we’re very sensitive about the music. It’s artier music and it’s honest that way and there’s a lot of integrity to it, and it has an audience here [Twin Cities].”

Packing the St. Paul’s Turf Club last Friday, the band indulged fans with a taste of their upcoming album (due this winter) with the song “Accidents Waiting (to Happen).”

Two full-length albums have granted the band both critical and popular acclaim. After Separation Anxieties‘s release last year, the band made some key moves. Opting for their next album to be self-produced was tops on the list, but acquiring the well-traveled and experienced Dave King seems to be the move of the millennium. Complementing the band’s vivacious power with primal yet finely precise beats, King can also adapt well to the eclectic tranquility of the slower tunes.

As Ryan’s clever and heartfelt lyrics represent 12 Rods on stage, King seems to speak for the band off stage. Commenting on each member’s roles, he remarked that “Ev’s got general knowledge about computers; he would be the real brain-trust of the band. Ev solves problems. Ryan’s kinda like ‘pop culture.’ He knows what’s hip right now. Ryan is our ‘ear to the street.’ Bill’s much cooler than us three. Bill’s less of the artist of the band. He likes playing music, but he’s got this unbelievable street sense. He could get into a con game or some kind of high level card game.”

Ryan adds of Shaw, “Bill’s a player. He’s got moxie. He’s the social chameleon.” Shaw slowly shakes his head.

The “rocking” element of touring seems to be only apparent in their music, however, as the quartet rebukes the offstage lifestyle dictated by rock n’ roll purists. In the Olcotts’ home state of Ohio, the band fake-trashed a hotel room, unscrewing light bulbs, putting the bed mattress in the bathtub, and rearranging everything, yet leaving everything intact. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, they spent the evening playing dodgeball in hotel swimming pools with little kids. And in Oxford, Ohio, the band walked into a frat party, where Shaw eventually had his shoe stolen.

Recently, the foursome have been spending many an hour in the studio, tinkering with their forthcoming album (title yet undecided), while King has attempted to devise new methods to irk Ryan.

“It’s essentially a Gemini/Virgo struggle between us, we battle for the king of the hill” King jokingly remarks. “You’re a brilliant musician, Ryan, but it’s not like you’re somebody who enjoys good food, good wine.” King leans over and softly mutters to me as if revealing a horrible secret: “He’ll eat at Red Lobster and Culver’s butter burgers a few times a week, and uses Happiness coupons because he’s so cheap.”

Shaw adds, “That’s Happenings, Dave,” continuing, “These two fight and Dave gets at Ryan, then Ryan gets offended and will go way over the top with something scary.”

“Red Lobster is your ‘button’ Ryan,” teases King.

Ryan shakes his head, “I’m gonna hit you.”

“That wouldn’t be wise,” smirks King.

Despite the band’s hysterics and harassment of Ryan, each seems to harbor deep respect for one another and, except for the “three on one” wrestling matches that occasionally occur (“They still can’t take me,” remarks King), the band seems very tightly fused.

“Let’s get it all out in the open man,” King states, “Ryan likes Red Lobster, Bill you have a reputation as a ladies’ man.”

“Dave, I don’t understand that.”

“Oh come on, Bill. And Ev, you’re textbook, a high functioning autistic sort of and you’re with this All-American girl who’s nuts about you. Pretty impressive Ev. Kudos.”

So what’s cool about 12 Rods? What makes them rock? Rooted in their roles as musicians fueling the music, 12 Rods seem very comfortable with the present, composing music at a suitable pace. Ev says, “If you’re confident with yourself, and you believe what you are, you know who you are, then cool just happens.” That confidence has definitely come across in their music as the band edges nearer to maturing their innovative sound with their third CD.

Regarding the band’s sound, King says, “Instead of ‘I’m a robot and I’m coming to kill you, it’s like ‘I am a robot and I’m gonna put a band-aid on you’. You know, a robot with a soul. It’s DEVO meets D’Angelo”.

Quickly eliminating cursory comparisons, 12 Rods is emerging as one of the most idiosyncratic and distinct sounds in music, hands down.