No One Knows How to Do It Like Brainiac

Remembering the band, 25 years after its untimely end.

I went to two concerts in 2006 that I still think about. 

The first was Belle & Sebastian and the New Pornographers, March 3 at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square. The two big things I remember are having to reluctantly ask my pal-and-bandmate Ian if we could bounce halfway through Belle & Sebastian’s set, as I had overheated in my winter jacket, and that the subsequent Pitchfork review of the show described the New Pornographers as “workmanlike,” which I understood as meaning they played their songs the way the songs go. The other was Liars, June 26 at Avalon, a church-turned-nightclub that I think I later attended a prom afterparty at. What I remember from this concert is the moment their song “Broken Witch” — which I had previously found impenetrable on the record — finally clicked for me. Hearing it live, the line, “We are the army you see through the red haze of blood,” the word “blood” repeated with increasing menace, was an incantation as exciting as any proper verse or chorus.

This is how I consumed experimental music, “unlocking” songs. I would read about something online, and if it sounded interesting or Cool and Important, I’d listen to the 30-second song clips on over and over until I decided it was time to buy the album at Borders. I’d invariably come away from my first full listen only liking a song or two, and dejected yet undeterred, I’d keep listening. I had the sense that, if older, wiser people praised this stuff — especially the people in bands I liked — they must know something I don’t. That what I was listening to was unlike anything I had heard previously, and learning to appreciate it was no less valid a form of ear training than tuning my guitar to a landline dial tone. Some weird asshole on a message board named chiral_compound proclaiming that there isn’t a wasted second in “Sister Ray” didn’t make me want to fight him, it made me want to see if I could agree with him.  

So when the crowd at Avalon went nuts after the opening cry of “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack,” one of a handful of songs on Drums Not Dead that I didn’t like, I mostly just wished I got it more. I bring up these concerts because they were, in hindsight, emblematic of the way I viewed music. I thought the New Pornographers had great songs, but didn’t sound cool; I thought Liars were sonically exciting, but, by intent, had barely any songs. It seemed like there was an inverse correlation between how cool you could sound and how good your songs could be, almost like budgeting ability scores across different attributes, or whatever D&D people do. But not long after I went to these concerts, I learned this wasn’t necessarily true.

I first heard “Flash Ram” by Brainiac on a stranger’s MySpace page. I liked the song, but had never heard of them as even peripheral figures of the indie rock canon, and didn’t know what to make of their aesthetic based on the one gothy photo I saw. There would be no trip to Borders with these guys, I figured, and so despite my dad’s stern warnings that we couldn’t afford to be sued by Lars Ulrich, I downloaded their entire catalog on Soulseek.

My time spent Unlocking White Light/White Heat had prepared me well, and as this blog post I made on September 29, 2006, suggests, I took to their sophomore album, 1994’s Bonsai Superstar, immediately. No chipping away needed. “Hot Metal Dobermans” had all the pop bonafides of a classic opener: an indelible opening riff, a verse strong enough to happen twice in a row, a sing-a-long-able chorus, and a proper bridge into a guitar break to tie it all together. It just happens that the riff is menacing, the verse vocals are almost completely obfuscated by modulation, the choruses are sung in a demented falsetto, the bridge is a prolonged wail over blaring minor seconds, and the guitar break sounds like it was created by turning a crank instead of strumming strings.

“[Tim] Taylor’s mystique is a big part of Brainiac’s allure,” I observed of the “singer/Moogist” in the blog post. He seemed to have several different voices, and could deploy all of them over the course of a single song, through a litany of different effects he supposedly achieved by singing through a Moog synthesizer. The defacto ballad “Fucking with the Altimeter” is famously built on looping samples of a parakeet training record from the ‘80s, the phrases “give me some love,” and “how about a kiss?” increasingly warbling as they interlock with percussive mouth gulps in lieu of drums. Taylor recorded the tremolo vocals literally the same way Chris Farley does the “Luke, I am your father” bit in Tommy Boy.  

“Status: Choke” boasts the album’s finest vocal melody despite also featuring arguably the most dissonance of any of its songs. A toy phone ringing adds to even more minor seconds, and around 2:04, Brainiac hit a swaggering stride worthy of their self-annointed King of Pop status. It is still to this day my favorite song of theirs. Though it doesn’t feature the warped synths that would earn the band their comparisons to new wave, it sums up what Brainiac was: the most fucked up sounding band and the catchiest band, two distinctions I’d thought were mutually exclusive.

All of this, and Taylor’s tragic death in a single-car accident in 1997 (on his way back from the studio after working on what was supposed to be their major label debut, as the story goes) were really all I knew about them for a while. I had hardly seen a live clip, and never seen or read an interview. I often wondered what Taylor’s “real” voice — speaking and singing — sounded like. But while this made him enigmatic, he was anything but aloof. This wasn’t some shoegaze band drowning out its singer with washy guitars and ethereal reverb to the point of anonymity; Taylor’s vocals are the focal point of virtually every Brainiac song. With him, you aren’t being starved for personality, you’re being given so much of it that it’s hard to pin the guy.

You could describe this personality as “wackiness,” but the wackiness never comes at the expense of a soul. For my money, and without naming names, most other irreverent ‘90s rock groups strayed too far into comedic waters for their own good, to the point of feeling emotionally vacant. Listening to stuff like that, I’d always be left thinking, God, don’t these guys know I’m depressed? But Brainiac eschewed this, because they weren’t just cutting jokes. “Flash Ram” may have featured a melody vaguely reminiscent of The Oompa Loompa song being sung in a robot voice, but it was still beautiful and affecting, and Taylor knew just when to layer in his natural voice for cathartic effect. They were a serious band who just happened to have a sense of humor. Their playfulness made even their most depraved and violent-sounding songs fun.

Before long, I’d come to love their other releases. Contrary to the smug dismissal in my blog, their 1993 debut Smack Bunny Baby wasn’t “Nirvana mimickry” (sic), and actually featured some of their highest highs. 1996’s Hissing Prigs in Static Couture is darker than its predecessor Bonsai, but is no longer “puzzling.” I now think it’s their best collection of songs. The Internationale EP is short and sweet, and the more electronic Electro-Shock for President, the band’s holding pattern-turned-swansong, might lean heavy on the interludes and sonic experiments, but features two great songs in addition to “Flash Ram.” It’s a bittersweet look at what might’ve, and should’ve, come next.

Across all of it, Brainiac seamlessly bridged the gap between their pop and avant sensibilities, filtering it all through Taylor’s mile-a-minute persona. Hearing a pop song retain its smarts through so much chaos and dissonance is like watching a magic trick, a futuristic type of songwriting that I can only describe as progressive, however loaded a musical term that is. On the flipside, hearing something so melodic get defiled by abrasive textures and zany structures feels more viscerally transgressive than simply listening to straight noise. The former is uncanny valley pop, the latter is background music.

It’s this Goldilocks zone between the weird and the accessible that I think truly transcendent pop music should occupy. A little over a year after I wrote my Brainiac review, I’d hear “Peacebone” by Animal Collective and be blown away by how it struck that same balance. An all-enveloping, thrillingly gross alien sound gradually lands on a pitch and gains a root note and a backbeat, over which Avey Tare begins singing what could be a children’s song if not for the cacophony around him. I read virtually every giant run-on sentence post about their influences that the members of AC made on their now-defunct Collected Animals forum, and never once saw Brainiac mentioned. But they were consciously operating on the same wavelength.

The “obsession with the past” that Tare sings of on “Peacebone” seems to have helped the cult of Brainiac grow as more years pass. It wasn’t until a few years ago that an interview finally made its way to YouTube, and the 2019 documentary Transmissions After Zero sparked wider interest in the band. My google searches started turning up more results, and I learned that Taylor was also a great guitarist, and the son of a professional jazz guitarist named Terry Taylor. I learned that upon finding out Taylor had died, Jeff Buckley delivered an extremely corny onstage eulogy just days before his own death. And I learned that the car accident itself wasn’t the result of some classic rock & roll debauchery, but rather, carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an exhaust leak, the details of which are too gruesome for even the most ill-advised romanticization.

From the documentary, I learned that Taylor loved the Beatles as a kid. Clips of him sitting in with his dad’s band confirmed his jazz chops, and in Brainiac, he was the auteur. Bassist Juan Monastero at one point recounts how Taylor would bring in a fully formed song to practice, and if one of the other members made the mistake of saying it sounded like a radio hit, he’d take it off the table. At the next practice, he’d re-introduce a virtually unrecognizable version of the tune, finally sounding like a Brainiac song.

I’ve always found it weird that while certain artists, like Death Cab for Cutie or the National, seem eager to cite Brainiac as an influence, you’d never guess it based on their own music. Part of that has to be that trying to sing like Taylor would sound like you’re doing a bit. There’s only the original. But while that makes it sound like he was this natural, one-in-a-million freak — who shot from the hip, and when the smoke cleared, there was Brainiac’s music — Monastero’s anecdote says otherwise. Taylor was a craftsman, capable of working backwards from Normal. Maybe that’s just as much a reason for why no one tries to sound like them: No one else even knows how to do something like that.

When it feels right, I’ve called on my own Brainiac influence. I used the whirling noise interlude “Indian Poker (Part 2)” as a reference for the intro of my band Miracle Sweepstakes’ song “Relative Mind.” My newer project Hit has a song called “Vanderbilt,” which is an exercise in seeing how infectious a one note refrain can be, à la “Bawitdaba” by Kid Rock. But one of the first sounds you’ll hear are those minor seconds. When I try in vain to describe my music to people, I sometimes use the qualifier “but power poppy,” even though most Big Star or Teenage Fanclub songs sound toothless to me. Such are the trials of articulating your forays into the Goldilocks Zone. 

In 1997, Brainiac was preparing to sign with a major label. They had incorporated a few new songs in their live sets, two of which the surviving members would perform at their 2019 reunion shows. But on the podcast Conan Neutron’s Protonic Reversal, Monasterio expressed doubt that those songs would’ve made it onto their next release, at least in their known forms. The band felt they were too similar to what they’d already done, and as Monasterio put it, “we weren’t going to try to make an indie Brainiac album on Interscope.”

My optimistic belief, as an outsider who wasn’t there, is that Brainiac’s major label debut would’ve been the Merriweather Post Pavilion of the Y2K era, building off the electronic arrangements of Electro-Shock in a bigger, more streamlined blend with the pop instincts that were evident since the band’s inception. Whether that album would, like Merriweather, muster only a glancing blow on the mainstream is anyone’s guess. But it would’ve been Brainiac’s uncanniest pop yet.

Tim Taylor overshot the 27 Club by a year, and is a clear case of an artist who got interrupted mid-sentence. A secondary tragedy of his death is that its ill timing likely means that Brainiac will forever be a cult act — and that may be the allure for some. As Cedric Bixler-Zavala has said, Brainiac was “like a dark secret you can discover.” But for me, Brainiac’s appeal is no different from that of the more famous groups I love. Be it the Beatles and Beach Boys, or Todd Rundgren, or the Smiths, or even Animal Collective, they all prized pop songcraft while being at the sonic vanguards of their days. The songs were of equal importance to the sound, shone by each artist through their own singular lens. Brainiac not only belongs in the same class as these luminaries, they strove to be included. Why else dub yourselves the King of Pop? They were the Goldilocks Zone’s most extreme inhabitants, a Cracked Machine spitting out immaculately jumbled pop songs. I wish they weren’t its most obscure.

Craig Heed is a musician from New York who plays in the bands Miracle Sweepstakes and Hit. Miracle Sweepstakes’ latest record, Last Licks, is out now on One Weird Trick.

(Photo Credit: Sam Blieden)