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Brainiac

Mad, Musical Scientists

"Fake, crash and burn / No body double" These are the lyrics from a Brainiac song called "Pussyfootin'," and they were the words that went through my mind when I heard that Timmy Taylor had died.

Taylor was the front man for the indie-rock group Brainiac, and in 1997 the band was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream. It would have been a well-deserved success after years spent touring (first the US and then the world) and rumour had it they were about to leave Touch & Go Records to sign with Elektra. Though some will argue that the deal was not a sure thing, it is safe to say that had Elektra not scooped them up, someone else would have. Brainiac was a band that looked no further into the future than their next realistic goal and became creatively successful in only a handful of ambitious years. Then, one night in 1997, Timmy Taylor died in a fatal car accident only blocks away from his home in Dayton, Ohio.

Tim Taylor exploded onstage with alien voices, violently bashing a synthesizer. ... Flanking him were Juan Monasterio, staring over his bass with expressionless eyes, and John Schmersal, whom I once saw continuing to play his guitar despite having shredded his fingers into a bloody mess. Tyler Trent sat behind them all, beating the drums that drove Brainiac into more than just inspired performance. They were fucking nuts.

Perhaps Beck, who toured with the band in Europe shortly before Taylor's death, described Brainiac's live act best in his tour journal on Slate: "Tim was an inspired performer. He exploded onstage with alien voices, violently bashing a synthesizer. Between songs he would exclaim to a befuddled English audience, 'We're BRAINIAC from Dayton, Ohio, USA!!! LAND OF MILK AND HONEY!!!'" Flanking him were Juan Monasterio, staring over his bass with expressionless eyes, and John Schmersal, whom I once saw continuing to play his guitar despite having shredded his fingers into a bloody mess. Tyler Trent sat behind them all, beating the drums that drove Brainiac into more than just inspired performance. They were fucking nuts.

The first Brainiac song I ever heard was "Draag," from their debut album Smack Bunny Baby. A friend had put it on a mix tape. It's a loud song featuring crazy modulating vocal yelps, distorted and extended to match the clattering guitars and noise surrounding them. When the song reaches its peak, everything collides and descends into the thrumming of a Moog keyboard. It's the sound of thousands of electric sci-fi dreams and the moment I heard it, I fell in love. Even better, Brainiac was based out of Dayton, a mere thirty-minute drive from where I was living in Enon.

Out in the sticks, the industrial wasteland of Dayton seemed positively cosmopolitan. On any given night in the mid-nineties, one could find Robert Pollard and Kim Deal gabbing over drinks at Walnut Hills; or bands like Lazy, Real Lulu, or Swearing at Motorists playing at the Sub Galley, a sandwich shop with a teeny-tiny performance space. And Brainiac, a bunch of art-rock weirdoes with college degrees in fashion, was at the forefront of it all. In a few short years, they had evolved from thrift-store fashions and playing skronk to wearing Beatle boots with tailored suits and playing precursors to the electro-doodlings of today. Best of all, Timmy Taylor understood how much Brainiac meant to the kids.

Brainiac released only three full-length albums (two EPs and a handful of 7" singles), each effort trumping the preceding one in terms of noise and weird alien sounds. The Moog-which added a nice, vintage analog feel to their songs about smack bunny babies, brat girls and the like-evolved into an array of synthesizers and keyboards, all of which looked like they'd been drop-kicked a few times. Once they began to incorporate electronic instruments, the songs evolved into something darker and technologically proficient. During their live shows, the band chewed up the scenery and left the audience bewildered. The band members were, as one of their concert posters declared, mad musical scientists.

After Timmy's death, the music scene pretty much dried up around Dayton: Tyler Trent played drums very briefly for the Breeders, Juan Monasterio increasingly focussed on his design work (he'd designed most of the Brainiac albums, T-shirts and other such things) and John Schmersal moved to Kentucky for a while before heading to New York.

"We're Brainiac from Dayton, Ohio!" he used to bellow between songs. He made it seem like more than nowhere.

I, too, began getting my shit together. Part of this meant landing an internship at the local paper where I got to hang out with Don Thrasher, music critic and one-time drummer for Guided by Voices. I knew that he was friends, at least in passing, with the guys from Brainiac and it took me weeks before I could get up the nerve to bring up the topic. One day, we were driving around Dayton in his car, talking about one of the last shows Brainiac played: Timmy had been particularly cavalier onstage that night, gabbing about Tupac, who had just died. In retrospect it was eerie, but at the time it was just one guy doing his best to make us all laugh at the concept of death. As we talked, Don reached into a cardboard box on the back seat and began digging around for a tape that John Schmersal had sent him. Schmersal, who had by then moved to Brooklyn, had started a band named after my hometown-he even released a 7" with a picture of the Enon water tower. The tape Don played wasn't Brainiac, but it was good. I was comforted and hopeful in the knowledge that the sound Brainiac had started was-and is-continually evolving.

I did have some encounters with Timmy Taylor himself, although they were brief. I know a lot of people that have had similar experiences: Taylor remembered someone's name because they'd talked to him at a show, or Taylor complimented someone's jacket when they ran into him on the street. He certainly didn't know my name, but we talked a few times, and if I saw him somewhere he'd always take the time to say hi. That meant something. The last time I saw him was at a gas station: He'd left his car (a vintage Saab or Volvo, I can't remember which) idling in the parking lot and had come inside to buy a six-pack of beer. I don't remember what we talked about, but we shook hands just before he zipped away in the car that he would die in only a few days later.

"We're Brainiac from Dayton, Ohio!" he used to bellow between songs. He made it seem like more than nowhere. It was somewhere-it was where I was from. And that meant something, too.

Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he's written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and UGO.com, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.