Once loathed as the squawking embodiment of fatuous musical self-indulgence, the Moog synthesizer has suddenly become the noisemaker of choice for the status-seeking elite the world over.
From all-American Loser-boy Beck to Deutsch delinquent Alec Empire, over to Britronica stylist Mike Paradinas and across to Tokyo tone-terrorists El-Malo, you can’t get away from the bloopy sound of Robert Moog’s ingenious creation.
Even before Beastie Boy Mike D. decided to devote the current issue of his on-point Grand Royal magazine to the celebration of all things Moogular, its telltale oscillator screech was already well on its way to becoming as ubiquitous as it was in the early 70s.
Little did the members of Brainiac realize when entering a pawn shop in their home town of Dayton, Ohio, five years ago, that the dusty analog synth device they carried out would one day become the most sought-after weapon of anti-digital rebellion. For Brainiac’s singing idea guy, Timmy Taylor, the Moog Rogue – with its fun-to-twiddle knobs – just seemed to be the cheapest way out of midwestern guitar-rock boredom.
“The reason we wanted a Moog in the first place,” recalls Taylor during his lunch break from the Dayton head office of the religious music publisher where he works, “was because while Juan (bassist Juan Monasterio) and I were at a party, we heard this David Bowie song called You Shook Me. It was just guitar, drums and a Moog doing the bass parts but it sounded really cool.
“We knew a pawn shop in town had a Moog so we went to see if we could buy it. The thing had probably been sitting there since the 70s and the owner didn’t understand why we wanted it. He said, ‘You know, it’s not MIDI-compatible – it’s useless!’ Heh, heh, heh. So we bought it and came back the next day and picked up another Moog Rogue, a Moog Prodigy and an Arp Odyssey as a package deal for $100.
“They sounded cool, but nobody in the group wanted to play the Moogs. We tried pushing it on Juan first ’cause he was the bassist, but he wouldn’t touch it. Next we tried to interest Michelle (ex-guitarist Michelle O’Dean) in it, but she didn’t want to have anything to do with it either. So it fell to me by default.”
Brainiac’s rambunctious recording studio escapades, documented on 1993’s Smack Bunny Baby (Grass), 1994’s Bonsai Superstar (Grass) and their crowning achievement, 1996’s Hissing Prigs In Static Couture (Touch and Go), have been anything but boring.
They may favour synths over guitars and pose in undergarments for SPIN fashion layouts, but the ferocious blurt that Brainiac beats out of those duct-taped devices could never be mistaken for electro-pop foppery. Their confrontational performances look more like man/machine hand-to-hand combat.
“Our goal was to be a synth band for people who hated synthesizers,” Taylor continues, prior to an Opera House showing Friday. We never really faced any resentment from the punk crowds. Early on there were times while setting up I could hear people muttering, ‘Oh no, a synth band.’ But as soon as we start kicking shit off the stage I think most people realize we’re not your average keyboard band.
“Actually, there was one audience that turned on us. It was some huge hall in San Diego on a bill with Face to Face and five ska-punk bands. We saw the kids going nuts moshing around to everything so we thought, ‘Hey, this’ll be a piece of cake, they’ll love us.’ And they did for about one song, and then they started throwing shit.
“Some kid spat a Jolly Rancher at me so I said, ‘Fuck you.’ He wouldn’t stop shooting ’em so I jumped down and gave him a little sock. Unfortunately, he had a buddy who was four times my size and he took care of me. Even the fat bouncers they had lining the stage were against us. When I tried to get back on stage, they blocked my way so they could see me get what I deserved. As we were leaving, a bunch of these 15-year-olds came around back while we were loading up and said, ‘You guys think you’re cool, but if you ever come back you’ll get yours!’ It was kinda funny.”
Bloodied but unbowed, Brainiac has pushed ahead and recently completed work on Electro-Shock Treatment For President. Perhaps the biggest shock associated with the six-track EP is that there’s no Moog. According to Taylor, who currently rocks a rack-mounted Oberheim synth, the fact that just about every other group on the planet is now recording with Moogs or Moog-like instruments wasn’t the reason for dropping it.
“There was no conscious plan to stop using Moogs,” explains Taylor. “After we did Hissing Prigs, we figured we’d done enough records with the same basic sound. We were getting bored and we needed a change. We got a sampler, John (guitarist John Schmersal) bought a digital synth, Tyler (drummer Tyler Trent) bought some pads and a trigger for his kick drum and Juan picked up this brand-new device from Korg that turns his bass into a synthesizer.
“All the new equipment brought about a different way of working as a group. Making music is exciting for us again. I think the Electro-Shock Treatment EP is a bit more pop-oriented than some of the stuff we’ve done in the past. The most noticeable difference is that the songs have a stronger melodic sense. I wouldn’t call it punk rock – it’s definitely not music to beat people up by.”