By David Sprague
Too much business, not enough show. That was the atmosphere at this year’s South By Southwest music conference, in Austin, Texas – until the Day-Glo futurism of Brainiac descended on the third day. Like maniacal landscapers taking chain saws to the roots-rock family tree, this Dayton, Ohio, quartet twitched around and shouted through 40 minutes of Moog-saturated punk screech that turned more Texas heads than WIllie Nelson would strolling the interstate in a miniskirt. “I think we’ve always been more inspired by what repelled us than by what we were into,” says frontman Tim Taylor. “The idea of playing ‘real’ rock & roll – you know, really rocking out – has always been pretty ridiculous to me.
On Brainiac’s just-released third album, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture, the band uses a vast arsenal of low-budget weaponry in its assault on tradition. Virtually every sound on the album – from John Schmersal’s unhinged guitar to Taylor’s falsetto squeals – is run through a sequence of effects that take Devo’s cyberpunk theories to their logical conclusions. Taylor acknowledges Brainiac’s debt to their Ohio forebears but insists Brainiac do not engage in revivalism. “We always wanted to look to the future,” the singer says. “The whole retro thing is killing culture.”
Brainiac may use vintage synthesizers (most of which Taylor bought at Ohio thrift stores) and proto-New Wave sonic stylings, but their music has a thoroughly post-punk attitude. Whether in the sci-fi underpinnings of songs like “I Am a Cracked Machine” and “I, Fuzzbot,” or their Jetsons-style stagewear, the band manages to project a believable 21st-century image. “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t use a visual sensibility as a natural part of your self-expression,” says the bony bassist, Juan Monasterio, a fashion-college grad with a penchant for outrageous outfits (like the shiny red hot pants he sported onstage in Austin.
Monasterio, who also designs all of Brainiac’s future-shock artwork, would be the most flamboyant member of just about any other American indie band, but next to the flailing, wailing of singer and synth player Taylor, Monasterio is a veritable wallflower. Taylor chuckles broadly when asked about the contrast between his live persona and the guy who is quietly sipping coffee on a bleary morning after. “I’m a lot nicer guy now that I’m a bigger jerk onstage.” he admits.
Taylor and Monasterio, who met in fifth grade, spent most of their formative years competing against each other in cello and math competitions and, in Monasterio’s words, “Seeing who could be the biggest showoff.” The two had to cede that title to Schmersal when they chanced upon a local hardcore show and were greeted by the scraggly redhead – then the frontman of the headlining band – who leapt from the stage to chat them up while his outfit was still playing. “It was an instrumental, so I had nothing to do,” Schmersal shrugs.
Within a couple of years, Taylor and Monasterio had poached the drummer Tyler Trent from that same hard-core band and formed an embryonic version of Brainiac. Wearing their influences – from Pere Ubu to the confrontational Washington, D.C., punks Nation of Ulysses – on the sleeves of their art school smocks, Brainiac released Smack Bunny Baby, in 1993, a rushed album that made up for its unfinished sound with a surfeit of dissonant but enchanting outbursts of pure noise. When their first guitarist left, Brainiac picked up Schmersal, which considerably changed the tone of the band’s follow-up, Bonsai Superstar. “John’s a lot more off-center than any of us,” says Taylor, “and I think that pushed us to get weirder.
Around that time, the popularity of two other Dayton bands – the Breeders and the current alternative-rock darlings Guided By Voices – invested the city with an unaccustomed allure, which Brainiac embraced wholeheartedly. The band hired homegirl Kim Deal of the Breeders to produce last year’s Internationale EP and insisted on emblazoning T-shirts and album covers with statements of civic pride.
“We’re definitely regionalists,” says Monasterio. “For a long time we were riding on Cleveland’s coattails, but for the first time that I can remember, people aren’t ashamed to admit they’re from Dayton.”
Although unsanctioned by the local chamber of commerce, Brainiac’s thumbnail tour of Dayton landmarks would begin with a trip to the bar where Guided by Voices’ frontman Robert Pollard engages in impromptu karaoke sessions and end at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base, where, legend has it, the bodies of aliens rest in a well-guarded hangar.
“Hangar 18 is definitely an important element in the development of the band,” says Taylor. “If you look at us, we all have huge heads, which points to us being the product of aliens escaping and breeding with humans. So many people have a Blade-Runner-view of the future, but if you look at the evidence like us, the future looks great, right?”