Boy in the Woods: The Mad Innovator of Minneapolis
Between February and March 2015, I conducted two telephone interviews with Minneapolis-based musician Ryan Olcott for a profile assignment in Dr. James Lewin’s Magazine Writing class. The initial goal was straightforward: to discuss Olcott’s band 12 Rods, who had recently reunited after being defunct for the last decade. What I got out of the interviews instead was a portrait of an aging musician existing on the fringe of success, still navigating his way through a music career in the face of rejection, bitterness, and self-doubt. Sometimes uncomfortable, other times inspiring, but always illuminating, Ryan Olcott’s musical journey symbolizes the plight of the modern musician: that talent isn’t enough to succeed in an art form that evolves more rapidly than perhaps any other. Yet, careers like his also distort the common conception of success in the arts. Is success originality? Wealth? Influence? While that definition can change from person to person, it was clear from our conversations together that Mr. Olcott’s definition of “success” was eating away at something within him.
The music business is no place for the weak. The road to success is congested, letting only the most select few through its gates. And while the kingdom that lies on the other side can bring wealth, fame, and happiness, once there, the simplest of mistakes can be grounds for exile. Ryan Olcott once made his way into this kingdom, and he can attest to its ruthlessness more reliably than your average musician. Fifteen years ago, he had the talent, the record label, and an incredible band of musicians all making his Mecca appear to be perched on the horizon. At some point along the way, he took a wrong step and was banished from the kingdom. Maybe it was the choice of producer for his band’s supposed “breakthrough” record. Maybe it was his record label, which would end up folding and being absorbed into Universal Music Group within years of his band being dropped. Maybe it was punishment for something he did in another life. Whatever the cause, Olcott is convinced he was destined for failure. “It’s a cruel joke that life has upon me,” he tells me over the phone during our first interview.
Ryan Olcott quickly became a presence in the Minneapolis music scene when he dropped out of college and moved there from Oxford, Ohio with his band, 12 Rods, in tow. He tells me that the city became his home in June of ’94, during a much different time. These were the days before a Ryder truck blew off the front of a building in Oklahoma City or before Superman was paralyzed not by Kryptonite, but by falling off a goddamned horse. Simpler times. Most of the band were in their late teens, but that didn’t stop them from making a name for themselves in no time at all. Their first EP, gay? (released in early 1996), was given a rave review on the then-locally based online music publication, Pitchfork Media. Hometown shows were selling out quick and the 12 Rods were able to survive solely on the income the band was generating. Ryan recounts his sheer amazement during the time of his rapid ascension. Things didn’t end there. Shortly after gay? was released, V2 Records, a British label looking to tap into American talent, signed the band to a recording deal. They were the first American band signed to their roster.
V2 recognized that 12 Rods were one of the most promising bands in America, but they may have been too ahead of the times. In 1996, the post-grunge movement was still in full swing, cashing in on Kurt Cobain’s death and turning college radio into another form of Top 40 popularity contests. Ryan Olcott had grown up outside of this scene. His hometown of Oxford was only an hour or so away from Dayton, Ohio, one of independent music’s promised lands in the early 90’s. Bands like Guided by Voices, The Breeders, and Brainiac influenced Ryan as a teenager with their exploration of lo-fi and avant-garde sounds. The grunge movement couldn’t have seemed less interesting. Ryan’s predilection for the uncharted explains a lot. 12 Rods boasted an eclectic range of sounds, making it nearly impossible to classify them into any single genre. Keyboards contributed glitchy melodies in a throwback to 80’s new wave, but the guitars squealed like a punk band from the furthest reaches of the galaxy. One minute the band could be danceable, the next they’d be so aggressive that you’d find yourself wanting to sprint through a plate-glass window. Then they’d turn around on a dime and drop an anthemic chorus that didn’t suggest a sing-along as much as it demanded it.
12 Rods’ biggest victories were won through their four incredible albums. To this day, their music sounds more modern than could have been ever been anticipated. Think of them as another Radiohead (a band Ryan expresses vehement hatred for), but one that actually wants you to have a good time. Outside of the music, however, 12 Rods were hardly a success story. In fact, Ryan refers to the band as “poster boys for failure.” Their first major release, 1998’s Split Personalities, was well received by critics, but suffered from poor sales. In attempt to mend this issue, the band chose famed producer and musician Todd Rundgren to give their songs on their 2000 release, Separation Anxieties, a more polished, mainstream sound. On paper, the move should have exposed the band to a wider audience and radio play, but they didn’t just miss their mark; they dropped the gun before it even fired. “It’s an awful record…horribly produced,” Ryan says, and you can practically hear his head plop into his hands. He recounts tales of Rundgren showing up late for sessions, perusing through magazines during tracking, and being incompetent at the mixing board: “We had to sneak in [the studio] late at night just to go in there and edit stuff the way we wanted to.” The critics, including one-time champions Pitchfork Media, panned the record and V2 dropped the band shortly after its release.
The blow nearly ended 12 Rods then and there, but in 2002 they reconvened to release Lost Time, the last record the band ever made together. Self-produced and self-released, Lost Time captures the band in a triumphant state of maturation, as if they came home from war defeated, but stronger than ever. The arrangements are more complex, the songs are more aggressive, and they sound like a band telling the world, “Your loss, not ours.” Ryan looks back on the record fondly and credits it for turning him into a more well-rounded and independent musician. “Every night for months, I’d go in there and write, make, record, mix, engineer, figure it out on my own. I found out so much.” There’s pride in his voice as he rattles each and every job he performed, but he also betrays some long-held bitterness. The production on Lost Time was credited to the entire band, but he makes a point of saying they had nothing to do with album coming together. When I ask him why he credited them, he spits, “I was feeding them bones just to stay in the band.”
Comments like this make it evident that even the brighter spots of 12 Rods’s history only bring up negative memories for Ryan these days. Less than two years after Lost Time’s release, Ryan’s brother, Evan, quit the band, which prompted the other members to do the same. Ryan still holds hard feelings against his past band mates, telling me that without the music bringing them together, they never would have been friends in the first place. By the time we cover the break up of 12 Rods in our conversation, it’s clear that the topic upsets Ryan. For roughly an hour, he goes off on an impassioned monologue dealing with his failure as a musician, the music industry’s corruption, and his distaste for the band’s fans. I sit and listen while he veers from taking a humorously self-deprecating tone, being uncomfortably bitter, to nearly breaking down into tears. One minute he exclaims, “Fuck that band” and the next he laments the fact that no one acknowledges how successful 12 Rods actually were in their own right. In an attempt to save the interview, I try to guide the conversation to his more recent musical projects, but the conversation inevitably returns to 12 Rods, the scarlet letter that Ryan feels has been branded on his chest to this day, and the financial debt he’s been in since the band faltered. It’s an unexpectedly bleak conversation and I spend most of it wondering how I managed to ignite this tinderbox.
Yet, amid all of the ranting, Ryan throws out one comment that piques my interest. While discussing his current solo project C Kostra, he mentions that he has a new record 100% completed, but is hesitant to release it. “It’s fun music. I’m incredibly proud of it,” he says, but goes on to compare making music anymore to having a child – “only to drop it off at the orphanage moments after conception.” The talk of C Kostra momentarily brings back his friendly tone and his committed love of music becomes apparent again. But soon enough, the conversation gets heavy again. “I know it’s going to be one of those things that I’m going to throw out there and it’s going to be another disappointing failure. And I’m going to want to kill myself.” He says he’s worried that releasing it would be “the straw the breaks the camel’s back”. That any more rejection will cause him to lose his mind.
Olcott hasn’t released a full-length record since 2007 and other than some singles here and there. He hasn’t released anything since 2011. After the conversation ends, I can’t stop thinking about what another Ryan Olcott record might sound like; the talent that’s been captured like lightening in a jar, only for the glory to be hidden under his bed. The idea that a one-time prodigy who made some of the most virtuosic rock music of the late 90’s/early 2000’s is sitting on a potential goldmine eats away at my thoughts. A couple weeks later, I contact him on Facebook, explaining that I want to speak again. Promising no talk of 12 Rods (for the sake of both of us), I tell him I want to talk exclusively about the new record. He agrees for a second interview and before the night is over, I have Ryan Olcott’s first LP in eight years sitting in my inbox.
After 12 Rods dissolved, Ryan attempted to piece together another band with the intention of making music in a similar vein. Merely a couple of rehearsals into their existence, he called the project off. He wanted to do something new, drop the guitars and get out of the scene that had only spurned him. Around this time, Ryan had been experimenting with circuit bending, the process of sabotaging an electric keyboard’s hardware to create sounds that are unpredictable, nilhist, never meant to survive. Ryan had the desire to take these unruly electronic sounds, tame them, and turn them into something that might actually represent pop songs. Mystery Palace’s first LP, Flags Forward, was released in early 2007. It’s perhaps the most unusual release in Ryan Olcott’s discography: chaotic electro-pop that’s also full of empty space and silence, fluttering between anxiety and serenity. Most importantly, it’s overwhelmingly somber at times, a mood that 12 Rods tended to ignore for most of their career. On the record, Ryan ditches his screams, shouts, and soaring vocals for a hushed, damaged whisper. Listening, one can imagine him laying down the vocal track while splayed out on the couch or buried ten feet under a pillow fort. The lyrics frequently inaudible on the account that they sound more like exhalations than vocals.
There are moments where the record works wonders. On songs like “Rebelize” and “Free Ride,” Ryan mixes his knack for strong, catchy melodies with a nearly sacred-sounding melancholy. It’s a potent concoction that shows a new level of introspection and emotional depth, and the songs can easily be defined as the first gorgeous tracks in Ryan’s musical canon. The rest of the record, however, is too frenetic and unfocused. The circuit bending ends up being too oppressive of a presence and other than the aforementioned, the record doesn’t contain many memorable moments. “Making songs out of circuit bending is as hard as it sounds,” Ryan jokes during our second interview. Over Mystery Palace’s four or five years together, he reigned in the technique’s natural unruliness and released a handful of EP’s that contained more straightforward pop songs. He tells me that there was as much circuit bending on those releases, if not more, subtly bragging about the perfection of his craft over time. In 2011, Mystery Palace fell off the map. They were never signed, hardly toured outside of Minnesota, and never had a farewell show. Ryan barely speaks about them.
In the years since Mystery Palace’s dissolution, Ryan has kept busy. He does booking and sound at one of St. Paul’s most successful nightclubs, The Kitty Kat Klub. In his spare time, he produces for other bands in the Twin Cities area. These outcomes hardly provide satisfaction, however: “I spend all of my time working on other people’s shit. More than anything, people around here know me as the ‘Kitty Kat Klub sound guy.’ How quickly people forget.” Ryan turns forty years old this year, and the possibility of him never making a name for himself is something he says he has come to accept. But is there any truth in that sentiment? This past January, 12 Rods held a one-off reunion show at First Avenue, Minneapolis’ most famed venue, in celebration of the re-release of Lost Time. It was their first show in over a decade and a roaring success. In the sold-out crowd, perfect strangers talk about how they traveled from all corners of the country to see the show. When 12 Rods finally takes the stage after two hours of palpable eagerness from the crowd, the entire place loses its mind. The band kicks off the show with “Red,” the opening track from their first EP. Ryan brings back his primal yell, and everyone in the audience yells back with mutual intensity. If the legacy Ryan has created is truly a failure, how does he explain this?
He doesn’t know and he doesn’t try to. A confounding fog pervades the several months spent rehearsing for the show and rekindling relationships with old band members. Ryan says that he feels like his real life was put on hold through the whole process. 12 Rods was his “kid band” and the music he’s making now is what he wants people to hear. It’s understandable, if not somewhat unappreciative. “Those type of people are not who I want to be playing for,” he says, referring to the audience that showed up for the reunion show. He’s a different man now; he’s moved on from that music and into a more mature realm. These comments made me want to hear Ryan’s new album even more. Would C. Kostra make 12 Rods look like child’s play? I have my doubts, but when I finally receive the new record in my email, I’m stunned. It flows like the fucking Mississippi River.
The album opens with strummed guitar chords, phased to high heaven. The wah-wah sound is reminiscent of reggae, but influenced by MDMA instead of dope. After a few measures, a trumpet sounding sweet as honey saunters into the mix, lending a swagger that is absolutely infectious. If the first 20 seconds aren’t a testament to Ryan’s growth as a musician over the years, once his vocals drop there can be no doubt remaining. Vocoded, and tracked to allow for several different harmonizations, he sounds robotic, but one with a soul flowing through its hardware. If you can imagine a smoky cocktail bar on the edge of our solar system 200 years into the future, this is what the entertainer would be crooning from the stage.
The song is called “Heart to Heart” and it’s not only the futurism that strikes the listener. There’s a strong tone of optimism on the recording, something that once seemed unimaginable during Ryan’s stint as Mystery Palace. There are bongo drums, guitars and trumpets. The acoustic instruments lend the electronic elements an organic sound, making them feel honest and relatable. Additionally, there’s the strong funk/soul/R&B sound. Minneapolis is known for reinventing those genres in the late 70’s/early 80’s and for eventually gifting the world with the greatest R&B musician of all time (that would be the one and the only, Prince Rogers Nelson). Over the years that Ryan has made Minneapolis his home, these genres have clearly crept into his musical subconscious. But the record isn’t merely paying homage. It makes R&B and soul sound both refreshing and contemporary for the first time since D’Angelo dropped Voodoo in at the beginning of the millennium. It’s impossible to listen to C. Kostra’s debut and not feel hopeful about music again.
The album’s ten tracks clock in at a little more than a half hour, and with all of the genre exploration, the experience flies by. Ryan tackles lounge music, new wave throwbacks, dance hall bangers, hip-hop, dream pop, and balladry, infusing all these sounds and binding them together with his sleek production. And the production aspect is perhaps the key to the record’s unique sound. Ryan’s brother and ex-bandmate Evan founded his own software company, Audiofile Engineering, shortly after leaving 12 Rods. The steadily growing company makes various software applications for musicians recording on Macintosh computers. A couple years ago, Evan created a modulation software called VoxOver and asked Ryan if he’d throw together a couple of songs showcasing the software’s potentials. Ryan ended up loving its effect on his vocals and found himself in the midst of a bout of manic songwriting. The songs that he wrote during this period are what make up the record.
Still, the overly polished, digital sound that recording on a computer can lend to a song was something Ryan wanted to work around. After a period of time spent searching for a vintage Yamaha four-track recorder to use for mixing, he found one in an unlikely place. Ryan’s mother passed away a few years ago, and while sifting through her last remaining belongings, he stumbled across the exact Yamaha model he was pining for. “It felt like an omen for me,” he says, one that started the record off on the right footing. His father, a professional trumpet player and retired music professor from Miami University, also has a presence on the album, playing all the horn arrangements. He says that this act of “bringing the family together” gave him the motivation he needed to complete his first record in years. It’s also what lent a more optimistic sound to its songs. But the more effort he puts into his craft, the more vulnerable he is to rejection. The more satisfaction he gets from his own music, the more he fears people will listen to it, trash it, and forget it like most of his records before.
Numerous Minneapolis record labels have been contacting Ryan to release the record. One wants to release it on cassette. One is interested in Ryan’s idea of issuing it on a limited run of reel-to-reel audiotape. But Ryan is holding out for someone to release it on vinyl. He believes that the nostalgia evoked in the music’s sounds of yore begs for the record to be released on that format. I agree with him, but can’t help thinking that he’s being a little picky. As much as he tries to convince me that he has no hope of ever making it big again in the music scene, it’s clear that he’s still waiting for that golden opportunity. It’s as if 12 Rods’ brief flirtation with fame raised his standards to a level that’s detrimental, though it’s not as if a second chance at that success is an impossibility. The record is a triumph. I want to say it’s his best material since 12 Rods, but I know it’s the best music he’s written period. It’s the proof he needs to know that he has grown up and has moved on from the troubles the music caused him in the past. It’s the material that truly deserves to sell out shows, in Minneapolis and elsewhere. “The music is all I have,” he tells me. “It’s all I can expect to do…to walk deeper into the woods.” Walking deep into the woods is exactly what Ryan has done and in there, he found himself. More than anything else, this is to thank for the album’s singular sound. It comes off as a man’s final hope for redemption.
C. Kostra’s debut will drop sometime during summer 2015, Ryan tells me. He says he doesn’t want to wait too long in fear that the music will grow stale if it sits for too long. The logistics of the record’s release already seem to be stressing him to the point of holding him back once more. He’s considering bailing on finding a label altogether and releasing it himself. “It doesn’t mean fucking shit. So many people put out stuff on labels and it never does anything.” But one could say that not everybody puts out music as solid as Ryan does. And isn’t personal growth is more commendable than record sales, anyway? With 12 Rods, Ryan proved that even as a kid, he could write more adventurous, original music than most of his contemporaries during the late 90’s/early 2000’s. With Mystery Palace he showed that he was willing to jump off the deep end, take risks, and expand his musical knowledge. Finally, with C. Kostra, he’s shown incredible resiliency, maturity, and recorded the best music of his career at the ripe age of forty. So while his records have never shown their faces on the Billboard Top 200 or an MTV video countdown, it’s never too late for that to change. Ryan Olcott is only getting hotter. And the only thing that can stop him?