BRAINIAC: It’s all in the keyboards……….
In between songs early on in a pretty lively and rockin’ set, Brainiac bassist Juan Monasterro finally loses his patience with the typically passive and almost-motionless Chapel Hill crowd. He moves beyond his earlier conversational chit-chat about nearby Winston-Salem and Amish people (a sly insinuation/commentary on the crowd’s polite and almost-puritanical rock show behavior?) and full-on into a wholehearted plea for some sort of action or sign of life:
“Honk if you’re horny, motherf@kers! Do something! Get some weedwhackers going here. What the f@k are you guys doing? This is a college town! Kickstands, whatever! I went to college, I went to art school, you know?”
Then immediately the drums kick in and Brainiac is right back to doing its hyper quirk-punk with damaged keyboards thing. It makes perfect sense why this Dayton, Ohio quartet would be a bit confused or taken aback by the passive response from the audience. After all, only Truman’s Water and a scant few others could match Brainiac’s on-stage energy level as far as mid-’90s indie- rock goes. During song after song of high-octane, fun-fueled spaz- thrash, Brainiac’s lead singer and part-time guitarist/keyboardist Timmy Taylor jerks and dances around stage with a humorously self-assured style that I found quite entertaining if a bit drenched in the slightly glammish rock star coolness that Brainiac sometimes displays (see also Option-hunks Girls Against Boys). But, hey, there once was another Ohio band called Devo that was somewhat image-obsessed too, right? And you don’t have to put Brainiac under the microscope for too long before finding some robot-like traces of Devo’s quirky punk outlook and slight technological fixation.
“I never really got into Devo until after we started getting compared to Devo,” Taylor remarks. When asked if he could see the Brainiac/Devo link, Taylor replied, “Aesthetically, yeah. I don’t think musically as much, but I definitely dig what they were doing.”
Another description (and one that might help complete Brainiac’s musical equation) would be to say that Brainiac are the ’90s indie-rock realization of NYC’s Contortions. The Contortions’ fast-and-tight, sax-led, no-wave punkish attack can easily be seen as a precedent to Brainiac’s best, punk-transcending songs: speedy, choppy and tight bursts of raucous rock energy, punctuated by occasional guitar and keyboard madness. But oddly enough, neither Taylor nor anyone else in Brainiac seems to have ever heard James Chance and his gang. “I’ve heard of them, but I never heard them. We’ve gotten one comparison to them.” With a laugh, Taylor finishes, “Well, that makes two I guess.”
Precedents aside, what helps Brainiac stand out a little from its ’90s peers is the fact that the band has augmented its sound with keyboards since its inception in 1992. While he used to use the growing-in-popularity Moog keyboards, Taylor now makes his noises and plays his damaged and fractured Cars-y new wave “licks” on an Oberheim synthesizer. “It’s the same kind of technology, just pushed to the farthest possible point. The Oberheim was the most complex, completely programmable synth they made. It was made about ten years ago. Right after they made those, they started making them more sample-based and those are much more prevalent now.”
While Brainiac’s keyboards have made them sort of an indie- rock anomaly in the past, that situation is lessening more and more every day. All too rare only a few years ago, the use of keyboards in rock is becoming much more common in the mid-’90s, as Stereolab, Pavement, Trans Am, Tortoise, Run On, Butterglory, Yo La Tengo, and Six Finger Satellite help the rock underground break out of its guitar/bass/drums straightjacket. “Well, there were people using keyboards back then,” Taylor comments, “but it seems that there’s a lot more bands that I like using them right now….Six Finger Satellite are really great.” Taylor’s admiration for Six Finger Satellite makes sense, as that Providence combo are actually the most-Brainiac-like of the above list. Both Brainiac and Six Finger Satellite use keyboards in a noise- appreciative and driving post-punk manner; keyboards are not used to break away from rock or accentuate its melodies so much as they are used as aids in accelerating rock to a crazier and more demented level.
This style seems to be working fairly well for Brainiac. After putting out a couple of albums on the Dutch East-spawned Grass Records, Brainiac inked a deal last year with the esteemed Touch and Go label. And it looks as though the band is part of a recent crop of diverse and promising Touch and Go signees (Man…or Astro-man?, Polvo, Dirty Three, etc.) that the label will be counting on now that a good chunk of its roster has seemingly either broken up (Tar, Don Caballero, the rumored-to-be-kaput-soon Shellac) or made the leap to the majors (Girls Against Boys, Jesus Lizard). So as you might expect, Brainiac are happy with their recent label-switch. “Yeah, it’s great,” Taylor remarked. “It’s still pretty new, but it’s definitely working well. It’s hard to explain…better distribution, stuff like that. Touch and Go have worked out the kinks because they’ve been doing it for so long. When we started with Grass it was a brand new label, so they had to learn a lot from the mistakes that they made on our records.”
Released in March, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture is not only Brainiac’s full-length debut on Touch and Go, but it’s the band’s third and best record to date as well. Odder, campier, and impressively wider in range than the live show, Hissing Prigs gives more room to Timmy Taylor’s kinda-grating, kinda-funny vox and not quite enough to the catchy and choppy screwed-up short-attention-span synth-punk that moves me the most. But, I guess that’s what the live show is for, right? You know, doing kickstands and stuff?