The Vectorist

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Brainiac’s Mad, Musical Scientists

Out in the sticks, the industrial wasteland of Dayton, Ohio seemed positively cosmopolitan compared to my little town of Enon. On any given night in the mid-nineties, one could find Robert Pollard and Kim Deal gabbing over drinks at Walnut Hills; or bands like Lazy, Real Lulu, or Swearing at Motorists playing at the Sub Galley, a sandwich shop with a teeny-tiny performance space.

John Schmersal, left, Timmy Taylor, right.

Brainiac, a bunch of art-rock weirdoes with college degrees in fashion, was at the forefront of it all. In a few short years, they had evolved from thrift-store fashions and playing skronk to wearing Beatle boots with tailored suits and playing precursors to the electro-doodlings of today. Best of all, Timmy Taylor understood how much Brainiac meant to the kids. But as quickly as Brainiac appeared on the scene, they left it.

The band released only three full-length albums, two EPs, and a handful of 7” singles. Each effort trumped the last in terms of noise and weird alien sounds. The Moog—which added a nice, vintage analog feel to their songs about smack bunny babies, brat girls, and the like—evolved into an array of synthesizers and keyboards, all of which looked like they’d been drop-kicked a few times. Once Brainiac began to incorporate electronic instruments, the songs evolved into something darker and technologically proficient. During their live shows, the band chewed up the scenery and left the audience bewildered. The band members were, as one of their concert posters declared, mad musical scientists.

Then, one night in 1997, Timmy Taylor died in a fatal car accident only blocks away from his home in Dayton.

After Timmy’s death, the music scene dried up around Dayton: Tyler Trent played drums very briefly for the Breeders, bassist Juan Monasterio increasingly focused on his design work (he’d designed most of the Brainiac albums, T-shirts, and other things), and guitarist John Schmersal holed up in Kentucky before heading to New York.

I, too, began getting my shit together. Part of this meant landing an internship at the local paper where I got to hang out with their music critic and a one-time drummer for Guided by Voices. I knew that he was friends, at least in passing, with the guys from Brainiac, and it took me weeks before I could get up the nerve to mention the band. We spent one afternoon driving around Dayton in his car, talking about one of the last shows Brainiac played: Timmy had been particularly cavalier onstage that night, gabbing about Tupac Shakur, who had just died. In retrospect it was eerie, knowing Timmy would be gone soon as well, but at the time it was just one guy doing his best to make us all laugh at death. As we talked, my friend reached into a cardboard box on the back seat and began digging around for a tape that John Schmersal had sent him. Schmersal, who had by then moved to Brooklyn, had started a band named after my hometown—he even released a 7” with a picture of the Enon water tower. The tape he played wasn’t Brainiac, but it was good. The sound Brainiac had started was—and is—continually evolving.

I met Timmy Taylor a few times. Briefly. I know a lot of people that had similar experiences: Taylor remembered someone’s name because they’d talked to him at a show, or he complimented someone’s jacket when they ran into him on the street. He certainly didn’t know my name, but we talked a few times, and if I saw him somewhere he’d always take the time to say hello. That meant something. The last time I saw him was at a gas station: He’d left his car (a vintage Saab or Volvo, I can’t remember which) idling in the parking lot and had come inside to buy a six-pack of beer. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we shook hands just before he zipped away in the car that he would die in only a few days later.

“We’re Brainiac from Dayton, Ohio!” he used to yell between songs. He made that place seem like more than nowhere. It was somewhere—it was where I was from. And that meant something, too.

The above blog entry is a revised excerpt from an essay that originally appeared in Maisonneuve.

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