12 RODS, also stylized as 12RODS or Twelve Rods, is widely an univestigated mystery of the 1990s. Until recently, their records were unavailable on streaming services. If you visit their website today, the domain is parked. If you don’t look carefully, it’s almost as though they didn’t exist.
Looking carefully, though, awards you with an interesting glimpse into queer and independent musicians who grew strong in the wake of a time where many artists struggled with making their music palatable to an industry while retaining their individuality.
12 RODS was a band formed by Ryan Olcott in the early 90s, and although they began releasing music as early as 1992, the group went through a couple of member transformations before releasing what is considered by many to be their masterpiece, the “Gay?” EP from 1996.
“Gay?” recieved lots of publicity via their Pitchfork review— one of the very few 10.0 ratings given in the history of Pitchfork as a publication. In the review, Jason Josephes writes, “This is 12 RODS’ first release, and if this is any sign of things to come, I have faith in the future of music.”
In 1998, 12 RODS released their commerical debut LP “Split Personalities,” this being the album that first brought my attention to the group. “Split Personalities” borrows two songs from its preceding EP, but offers a unique collage of indie pop, power pop, even prog pop and shoegaze. The album is packed full of fresh synth sounds and powerful, sometimes cryptic lyrics, and holds an impressive 9.7 review from Pitchfork.
Throughout “Split Personalities,” Olcott describes his loneliness, awkwardness, and struggles as a queer person in a time where discussions of queerness were sparing, and usually kept far from the mainstream.
My favorite track on the album is easily “I Wish You Were A Girl” for its heartbreaking and vulnerable description of experiencing shame around oneself in their most authentic form. My favorite part about the song, and the discography of the group in general, though, is not the lyrics by themselves, but the lyrics paired with the somehow enticingly monotone vocals of Olcott and the inventive genre-bending music from the group.
If there is one thing I admire “Split Personalities” for, it is Olcott’s willingness to bear pain clearly, loudly, passionately, and his ability to make it beautiful.
In 2000, the band released “Separation Anxieties,” produced by Todd Rundgren, which recieved scathing reviews, accumulating a disappointing 2.0 review on Pitchfork. Since then, 12 RODS has been mostly quiet, aside from an album re-release in 2015.
Ryan Olcott announced a new 12 RODS record in September 2021, writing on their Facebook page that the record was being made with “zero help, zero support, and zero financing.”
12 RODS is a short little blip in the 90s indie scene, but their music is an important statement regardless– a statement on queerness and visibility, on the music industry and what it means to create art for profit rather than for the sake of the art itself.