Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Called the “city of a thousand factories” in its early days, by 1900 Dayton, Ohio possessed more patents, per capita, than any U.S. city. While the Gem City’s once-bustling streets are now quieter and its decline palpable, deep beneath the mire is a glimmer—a groundbreaking past that informs the present and inspires the future. Historically innovative, Dayton produced the airplane, Zapp, the automobile starter motor, Guided By Voices, the cash register, and an unusual, unheralded band: Brainiac.
“What you going to do about me?” sings Brainiac frontman Tim Taylor on “Hot Metal Dobermans,” the leadoff track to 1994’s Bonsai Superstar. His even-tempered voice harmonizes with itself, purposefully fucked with to sound fried and wavering.
Producer Eli Janney altered Taylor’s vocal in post-production, but Brainiac certainly produced its own strange sounds. Many were found in downtown Dayton, where 19th-century buildings rest alongside gas stations, check cashing services, and pawnshops. In the early 1990s, Brainiac painstakingly picked through these pawnshops for Moog synthesizers, shitty amps, and off-brand instruments to create Bonsai Superstar, its second studio album released in November 1994.
“Brainiac had a half-dozen conceptual plates in the air at any moment,” said Charles Bissell (of The Wrens), who toured with the band. “Tim sings through a vintage Moog synth, which I didn’t even know you could do,” he told The A.V. Club. “They also had the guitar voiced in seconds—like we were trying to do—but they did that by simply retuning.”
“There was this weird little generic amp that had an output on the back, and Tim ran everything through that,” said Brainiac guitarist John Schmersal. “He took it with him everywhere. It was one of his favorite secret weapons at the time. He distorted everything through that amp.”
After fronting Enon for years, Schmersal now plays in Crooks On Tape, Vertical Scratchers, and is a touring bassist with Caribou. Bonsai Superstar was Brainiac’s sophomore album, but it was Schmersal’s first with the band, and his endearingly eccentric presence signaled a marked change in the group’s direction.
Timmy Taylor interviewed by Chris Wright with Dave Doughman
Lasting only 2:48, “Hot Metal Dobermans” crescendos and falls, segueing into the unbridled snare roll of “Hands Of The Genius.” “Whoa-oh, Whoa-oh, the hands of the genius are stone cold!” screams Taylor. The song is tight, but still sounds as though it might come undone at any moment. That was the secret of Brainiac. Analogous to the lo-fi albums of fellow Dayton luminaries Guided By Voices, under the layers of mess and noise are undeniable gems.
The wildly original Brainiac was at the forefront of a creative swell hitting Dayton in the 1990s. The Breeders were on MTV and opening for Nirvana; Guided By Voices, A Ten O’Clock Scholar, and others were buzzing about town. All-ages shows took place at strange locations: The Lithuanian Club, a strip mall off Dorothy Lane, or a local gymnasium.
But local music fans believed that Brainiac was “the one.” Possessed with a pioneering spirit and an otherworldly chemistry, Brainiac was never afraid to take risks. This innovative spirit is documented throughout Bonsai Superstar, and certainly on the album’s memorable third track, “Fucking With The Altimeter.” “Give me some love,” says an anonymous and eerily soothing female voice at the intro. She implores the listener three times before Taylor’s equally haunting whisper responds: “God save us all.”
“The story goes that Tim picked up a record in Knoxville, Tennessee on ‘how to teach your parrot to talk,’ and the woman’s voice on ‘Fucking With The Altimeter’ is loops of samples from that record,” said Tim Krug, a friend of the band who plays in Oh Condor, Hexadiode, and performed with a retooled Brainiac for a one-off December 2014 benefit show. Panning on the left side of the mix is the sound of oddly articulated percussive whispers. “The vocal to ‘Fucking With The Altimeter’ was recorded singing through the blades of a fan, like a mechanical vibrato of sorts,” said Schmersal.
On Bonsai Superstar, many of the songs—and the album itself—follow the loud-quiet-loud formula, creating a constant tension that engulfs the listener. It’s a method employed by the Pixies (featuring Dayton native Kim Deal, who would later produce Brainiac) and Nirvana, and it gives Bonsai Superstar a classic sound of the era.
Following this format, the subdued “Fucking With The Altimeter” transitions into the dynamic “Radio Apeshot,” featuring both Taylor and Schmersal on guitar. At about the 0:15 mark, “Radio Apeshot” dips into an experimental section, with Schmersal playing a discordant trumpet and Juan Monasterio’s bass steadily holding everything together.
“Juan knew when to keep the groove, when to really let loose, and when to not play at all,” said Krug. “Even his simplest bass lines seemed to have something unexpected. That was kind of the name of the game with Brainiac. Be unexpected.”
Monasterio and Taylor were boyhood friends. “My first memory of Timmy was from 5th grade,” said Monasterio. “He was doing this funny walk down the hall, clapping his hands together, and saying ‘Quasimodo’ over and over. It was so weird and random. I knew right away I wanted to be friends with that guy. I used to really enjoy going over to his grandmother’s house after school. Over the years, Tim and I had convinced her I was two different people, Juan and another guy named ‘Wally.’ I suppose it was kind of a dick move, but we used have some really nice laughs about that.”
“Radio Apeshot” effortlessly transitions into a subdued, experimental sound collage titled “Transmission After Zero,” the two songs segueing together so perfectly that they sound as one. Bonsai Superstar is a collage of bizarre sounds; each song is remarkable in its own right, but it’s not nearly as remarkable as the collective whole.
“1, 2, 3, 4!” Taylor screams (though it’s barely audible), counting off the domineering “Juicy (On A Cadillac).” High-pitched, hyper, and incredibly energetic, the song forces the listener to pay attention. It also exemplifies Trent’s drumming—tight, chaotic, always passionate. He’s certainly strategic, but at times Trent sounds as though he’s simply hitting any percussive item in his periphery.
“I once saw Tyler completely abandon a song, crawl out between his drums to pick up a drumstick between his teeth, simply because he had dropped it,” said Bissell. “And even better, the band continue to play on drum-less for the duration because that was completely valid on his part.”
But while “Juicy (On A Cadillac)” aurally pummels the listener, “Flypaper” offers respite. The song is simple—guitar, bass, drums with brushes—but with a jazz tinge. Taylor grew up listening to classics, but his father was a jazz musician. “He had his own bands, but also played with his father, Terry Taylor, an accomplished jazz guitarist in the style of Wes Montgomery,” said Schmersal. “It was really just a pleasure to hear him play guitar at leisure when I lived with him, especially if he didn’t think anyone was listening. The way that he extrapolated from his jazz guitar knowledge and brought it into what he was doing otherwise was so effortless. It was the listening equivalent of watching one of those people who solve Rubik’s Cubes in under a minute.”
Garbled static starts “Sexual Frustration,” the album’s eighth track, Taylor uttering nonsensical noises while the band plays subdued in the background. Soon, the song erupts: “Boom shalaka-laka, oooh, I think she likes me!” Like many of Brainiac’s songs, “Sexual Frustration” was translated live, in unprecedented fashion. “What made them so great as a live band was their willingness to treat the live show as a completely separate experience from the album,” said Bissell. “Coupled with a more antagonistic-than-most relationship to the audience, and that aside from whatever genius magic Tim engaged in putting the music together in a studio, onstage they were very much a band.”
The album’s loud-quiet-loud song order is quickly discarded after “Sexual Frustration” in favor of the continually raucous formula heard on “To the Baby-Counter” and “You Wrecked My Hair.” While the fuzzed-out intro of “You Wrecked My Hair” briefly interrupts the momentum, it soon returns to overdrive, Schmersal’s angular guitar moving back and forth again. “That was one of the first songs that I wrote parts for,” said Schmersal. “I was using the guitar stand as a mechanism. I was hammering on and off, sliding and tapping at the same time. I had never seen anyone do that before. I just wanted to try it.”
Schmersal is highlighted once more on “Meathook Manicure,” recorded on a four-track, and lasting only 1:38. He sounds as though he’s anesthetized before entering into a feedback solo at around one minute in. “That was recorded in the basement of the Brainiac practice space,” said Schmersal. “It’s a Bullet mic with a really crappy cable, and it shorted out, causing the volume to go up and down. It was a lucky, weird occurrence.”
“Status: Choke” enters with tidy, symmetrical chords, the sound of a fake toy phone ringing, and Taylor singing in a high-pitched voice. “During that time, that was my gimmick,” said Schmersal. “You could get those toy phones at any truck stop. Basically, it was all about having things that we could smash.”
Album closer “Collide” sounds like something you’d hear on a turn-of-the-century Radiohead album, the album fizzling out in psychedelic distortion, Timmy Taylor speaking in indecipherable words, leaving fans wanting more.
And fans are still wanting more. After Grass Records released Bonsai Superstar, the company was soon sold to Wind-Up Records, which went on to sign Creed and Evanescence. Brainiac was not a priority. Wind-Up eventually sold its catalog to Bicycle Music Company, who now owns the record. But the album’s legacy remains.
“For a long time they were like a sacred shadow that no one could escape,” said Krug. “Their music really resonated with me in a way that few bands ever have. It’s in my musical DNA, and I’m sure is a constant influence on how I approach music.”
“When Juan, Tyler, and I drove away from New York, we weren’t entirely certain if anyone would be interested in hearing the final product,” said Schmersal. “It was not intuitive how beloved this record would become. I remember having a listen to a rough mix on tape during the drive back to Dayton, and all of us looked at each other and laughed, wondering if we were listening to the sound of our career imploding.”
While Bonsai Superstar ended in a subtle, open-ended way with the hissed-out psychedelic fuzz of “Collide,” Brainiac did not. After signing to Touch & Go, working with Kim Deal and Steve Albini, playing Lollapalooza, and touring with Beck, the band was rapidly rising. And though its method was clearly working, the members were still growing as a band, pushing themselves to break new boundaries.
“Brainiac, but especially Timmy, was always interested in pushing things forward,” said Monasterio. “I think Tim’s songwriting was consciously moving away from our early influences to something closer to his own voice.”
Bissell added, “Tim changed his approach—no singing through the Moog, for example—and instead looked for newer and cooler sounds done differently.”
Pre-production for a new album was in motion when Timmy Taylor died in a car accident on May 23, 1997. But the spirit of Taylor and Brainiac lives on as bands from The Mars Volta to Nine Inch Nails cite Brainiac as an influence. Bissell shared a lyric he wrote about Taylor from The Wrens’ forthcoming album: “As Tim skid his whole soul sprang / Bearing Brut and fresh flowers / Turned brown Crown Victoria devours / The King of Dayton’s down.” But whatever else Brainiac would have created remains unsung, as enigmatic as the music itself.
Bissel concluded: “They had, Tim had, cool governing ideas, approaches, and formulas that other bands would kill for, and he was willing—able—to move on and beyond them. Eventually, it sunk in to be less beholden to your precious ‘thing,’ to your territory or theories. Honestly, it’s a lesson I still haven’t really put into practice. For I am lame. And they were Brainiac.”