Brainiac on life after Tim Taylor: ‘He used to walk offstage with bruises in the shape of his effects pedals’

One of the most distinctive bands of the early 90s, Brainiac were broken by the accident that killed their founder in 1997. The surviving members explain why they have reformed

To the late Tim Taylor, the thrift stores of Dayton, Ohio harboured unimaginable treasures. “We’d spend every Saturday and Sunday thrifting,” remembers Juan Monasterio, his friend and future bandmate in Brainiac, long-lost avant-punks who are soon to play their first UK shows in over 25 years. “We’d fill shopping carts with weird vintage clothes, paying five bucks for the lot.” Even more precious were the relics of the city’s booming funk scene of the 1970s, when the Ohio Players, Slave and Sun strutted the earth. “They all used crazy synthesisers, and then sold them at the pawn shop when their careers ended,” says drummer Tyler Trent. “Tim bought them all. I was there the day he grabbed three Moogs for 90 bucks!”

Taylor instinctively figured out how to wring wild sounds from these archaic synths. A prodigious musical talent, he was the son of jazz musician Terry Taylor, playing guitar in his dad’s ensemble and goth outfit Dance Positive before joining glam biker-rock group Pink Lady and the Lenny Kravitz-inspired the Wizbangs with Monasterio. Taylor and Monasterio conceived Brainiac in 1991, under heavy influence of the Stooges and David Bowie’s Low. “We wanted to use these synths, and Tim sang through his Yamaha guitar processor because he’d never sung before. And we really cared about how the band would look.” Indeed, when Trent auditioned, “Tim was wearing a leather jacket, leather pants and a white rabbit-fur vest. He played me a couple of songs, and I was blown away. It was like nothing I’d ever heard.”

Clockwise from top left: Tim Taylor, Juan Monasterio, Tyler Trent and John Schmersal.
Clockwise from top left: Tim Taylor, Juan Monasterio, Tyler Trent and John Schmersal. Photograph: John Falls

With Michelle Bodine on guitar, the early Brainiac juggled surf-rock licks, weird tunings, Moog trickery and just enough post-Nevermind tunefulness to get signed to indie label Grass. Frustrated by uninterested local studios, the group found a kindred spirit in producer Eli Janney, whose own band, New York underground rockers Girls Against Boys, became regular tour mates. “Tim was this incredibly creative, very eccentric person,” Janney told me in 2012. “His ideas just flowed.”

Brainiac truly took shape with the arrival of John Schmersal, who replaced Modine after the group’s 1993 debut, Smack Bunny Baby. “I got a letter from Tim asking if I wanted to join the band,” says Schmersal, who quit college, moved to Dayton, and almost immediately took off on tour with them. Schmersal’s inventive techniques energised Brainiac’s sound, while Taylor assumed the role of frontman with renewed confidence and menace. “He was this subdued and friendly guy offstage,” says Trent. “Then he got onstage and shoved the microphone halfway down his throat and started leaning into people.”

“He was such a great musician, he could go far out on a limb and not worry about everything falling apart,” adds Monasterio. “And he was willing to do anything to entertain. He’d walk offstage with bruises in the shape of his effects pedals all up his back.”

At the tour’s end, Grass began hassling for album number two. “We weren’t ready,” says Schmersal. But their flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants mindset helped shape 1994’s Bonsai Superstar. A collection of distorted pop songs fashioned from weird guitar tunings and Moog wibblery, its brilliant, broken genius remains unmatched. Twisting his vocals with effects, Taylor transformed himself into a priapic Jon Spencer on Sexual Frustration, played obsessive stalker on the mesmerising creep of Fucking With the Altimeter (over loops from The Complete Parakeet Trainer for Teaching Your Parakeet to Talk) and lampooned lounge-pop on Flypaper. Disorientating blasts of musique concrète and radio static, lifted from tape collages Taylor made at home, intruded periodically. “They definitely wanted to fuck with the status quo of what indie-rock was supposed to be,” Janney told me.

“I got the impression Smack Bunny Baby had been too ‘normal’ for Tim,” adds Schmersal, “that he wanted to make something more further-flung.”

Brainiac: Sexual Frustration – video

Monasterio remembers driving home from the two-day recording session, thinking: “‘This record is terrible, horrible.’ It took me a minute to ‘get’ it. It’s the perfect balance between the first album’s poppy, Pixies-ish sound, and this new weird lo-fi aesthetic.”

Winning critical plaudits for the maverick invention of Bonsai Superstar, touring heavily with Girls Against Boys and the Jesus Lizard and scoring a place on 1995’s Lollapalooza, Brainiac found themselves the unlikely focus of courtship from major labels still in search of the next Nirvana. While they recorded 1996’s Hissing Prigs in Static Couture for venerated indie Touch and Go, one unnamed major financed a new drum kit for Trent for the sessions to try and woo them.

The prospect of the big time – and the threat of “selling out” or losing their creative control – caused unrest within Brainiac. “We were a strange band,” says Schmersal. “This was an opportunity to reach a wider audience, but it could’ve potentially ended our career.”

“Tim wasn’t interested in writing songs ‘the kids’ would love, though he was definitely talented enough to do that,” adds Monasterio. “He was trying to make music he felt was worthy of his heroes.”

‘He was willing to do anything to entertain’ … Tim Taylor.
‘He was willing to do anything to entertain’ … Tim Taylor. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

An uncompromising 1997 EP, Electro-Shock for President – heavily influenced by Throbbing Gristle and Nurse With Wound – seemed to ease Taylor’s angst over “selling out”. A tour supporting Beck, meanwhile, gave Brainiac a taste for larger stages, and a sense they could connect on such a scale. “Tim seemed to cross a rubicon – he wasn’t fighting himself any more,” says Monasterio. A major-label deal was firming-up. Rick Rubin was pencilled in to produce a new album. A tour with Rage Against the Machine was booked.

Then, driving in the wee hours of 23 May 1997, Taylor was overcome by leaking carbon monoxide fumes and crashed his vintage Mercedes into a lamppost. He died instantly. “I saw the police tape and the charred pole, the scene of the crash,” says Trent. “It was four blocks from his house. Tim almost made it home.”

Consumed by grief, the surviving members scattered. “We were just so young,” says Monasterio. “We didn’t know what we were doing.” Trent joined the Breeders (Kim Deal had been a big Brainiac supporter). “I lasted six months,” he says. “I just unravelled, fast. I became a straight-up crystal meth addict.” (He eventually found a way out: “I play drums at church now.”) Only Schmersal continued in music, founding the bands Enon, Crooks on Tape and Vertical Scratchers, and touring with Caribou.

“I’d spent my whole life with Tim as my main collaborator, and I was used to everything being so great,” shrugs Monasterio, sadly. “Other people just couldn’t compare.”

Brainiac in New York, 1993 … (L-R) John Schmersal, Tim Taylor, Tyler Trent and Juan Monasterio.
Brainiac in New York, 1993 … (L-R) John Schmersal, Tim Taylor, Tyler Trent and Juan Monasterio. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

In absentia, Brainiac’s legend grew, their influence proudly worn by artists such as the Mars Volta: Cedric Bixler-Zavala once told me: “Whenever I’m working out my vocals, I think ‘What would Timmy Taylor do?’ It’s my Oblique Strategy.” In 2019, a rockumentary, Transmissions After Zero, was released to widespread acclaim; the group reunited to play several shows to promote it. Now, they have reunited again, with Schmersal as vocalist, to support Mogwai on a UK tour, with an archival EP of tracks recorded circa Electro-Shock for President in the wings.

“After his death, Tim’s dad asked if we were keeping the band going,” says Schmersal. “I was in shock. How could we continue without Tim?” But now, he sees these shows as a homage to the band they once were and the irreplaceable genius of their frontman, and part of a belated healing process. “I guess a jazz musician would think: ‘You’ve got to celebrate this music, you got to keep it alive.’ Out of respect, we weren’t going to do Brainiac any more. But reconnecting and playing together again has been a really positive experience. This music is important to people, and they’re excited to hear these songs again. And nobody knows how to play them, except for us.”

• The Predator Nominate EP is out now on Touch and Go. Brainiac tour the UK with Mogwai and select headline appearances from 10 February. Details here


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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