"We haven't made a video for this album," Olcott says in his '70s-model-Woody Allen voice between bites. "The label won't pitch in for one because the album fell flat on its face and is a huge commercial failure."
The album, 12 Rods' third, is called Separation Anxieties. The title refers to a romantic loss Olcott sustained before writing the album, but it also predicted the departure of founding drummer Christopher McGuire. The rift has been the focus of too much press in the band's recent past, eclipsing the better, stronger, faster disc and the musicians behind it. McGuire's fine playing is still on display on most of Separation's songs, but the group has moved on, hiring in-demand Minneapolis drummer Dave King and including his name in the album credits.
Olcott and McGuire reached an impasse over the band's direction. While 12 Rods was never as arcane as, say, Space Needle, the group was more than sympathetic to the art-rock groove. But in the wake of his failed relationship, Olcott found himself writing material that was more direct than before.
"Originally, we weren't a pop band," Olcott explains. "But I kind of gravitated toward writing a pop album. It's fun to write and fun to play, so I just wanted to cut the fat and go for it." Still, Olcott didn't eliminate his knack for unusual chord structures and time signatures. It shows in his back-seat, no-solo approach to the guitar that has grown into a keen simulacrum of vintage Andy Summers.
It's no surprise, then, that Olcott and company still spin their old Police records. Olcott's other Reagan-era obsession is arcade gaming, a passion he shares with his brother, 12 Rods keyboard player Ev. The two gutted an old stand-up Klaxx game, built a new control panel, refitted it with joysticks and buttons and hooked it to a high-speed Macintosh processor inside the chassis. "It allows us to play games the old-fashioned way," Olcott says. "It's a serious time-waster." The brothers, who live together, have loaded more than 700 games on the machine.
Olcott, despite his aviator frame glasses and way with a soldering iron, rejects the frequently printed assertion that the members of 12 Rods play geek rock. Really, they don't. But the band didn't do anything to dispel the image by hiring legendary nerd and pioneer of zero-selling Enhanced CDs Todd Rundgren to produce Separation Anxieties.
"We know who Todd is," Olcott says. "But we never had him on a pedestal. We didn't think of him as some überproducer or master songwriter. We just wanted his objective word. And having heard stories, we expected the worst. We expected a slave driver. But I thought that would be a cool challenge and we could easily deal with it."
In fact, the Hawaiian setting of Rundgren's home studio was neither strict nor trying. Olcott says that most of the album's songs wound up sounding similar to his demos. "If anything, he didn't want to overdub enough," Olcott says. So the band took over some mixing and laid additional instruments on some tracks.
"The truth is that Rundgren's ears are so shot at this point in his life that it's hard for him to mix and master a rock album," Olcott says. "He can't properly monitor the frequency responses, but he's in denial about his hearing. The rest of us couldn't even stay in the control room. The volume was obscene, but he has to have it up that loud to hear it."
Rundgren's tinnitus notwithstanding, Olcott credits the producer with helping carve a daunting slab of demos down to twelve. "He helped me with the continuity of the record," Olcott says. "He listened to all the demos and said, 'These are the ones to get behind.'"
Rundgren chose well enough to feature a song Olcott wrote that plainly insults his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, calling the latter a musician whose band sounds like Korn. Harsh. It's worth reporting that: 1. 12 Rods and the Korn-y band have made nice; 2. The Korn-y band signed to American Records.
To do that, 12 Rods would have to be a bigger force itself. Even with major-label support, the band has yet to catch fire commercially. "I think there's a market for what we do," Olcott says. "But it's a strange time dealing with the label. They haven't expressed interest in dropping us. In fact, they have an option on us and they want to renegotiate, which is a shock to me. But they're confused and green about promoting a band like us. I just know that the next record will be different. Dave King is a great songwriter, and he has a musical sense that I trust. I don't know where or when it will come out, but I'll be starting in a couple of months, and we'll definitely negotiate. Something will be released.