26 Years After Its Singer’s Sudden Death, Brainiac (Briefly) Returns
On a late May morning in 1997, a mangled lamppost surrounded by the wreckage of a 1977 forest-green Mercedes-Benz stood near Lawn and North Main Streets in Dayton, Ohio. Tim Taylor, the 28-year-old leader of Brainiac, the city’s swiftly ascending synth-punk band, had been driving home alone from a local nightclub at about 3:25 a.m. when his car spun out of control, crashed and exploded in flames.
Brainiac — often stylized as 3RA1N1AC — had recently toured with Beck, played Lollapalooza and recorded with Kim Deal, John Peel and Steve Albini. The group was known for its hyper-energetic live performances, where Taylor writhed across the stage. According to the band’s surviving members — the bassist Juan Monasterio, the guitarist John Schmersal and the drummer Tyler Trent — major labels, including Interscope and Elektra, were wooing the group with seven-figure offers. But when Taylor, the son of the cellist Linda Taylor and the jazz guitarist Terry Taylor, died in the accident, so did Brainiac, and the opportunities awaiting the band.
In the ensuing years, the group’s influence was cited by figures as varied as Trent Reznor and Fred Armisen. “I still can’t think of an artist that approaches their flavor of mad science — clanging, clashing, vibrant, silly, scary, unafraid,” said Sadie Dupuis of the band Speedy Ortiz, who named her solo project Sad13 as a Brainiac tribute. She called the band’s mix of guitar heroics, processed screams and other experimentation “pure genius.”
A 2019 documentary, “Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero,” revived interest in the group and helped reunite Monasterio, Schmersal and Trent. “The documentary was really cathartic,” Schmersal said in a phone interview. “Once the band was done, we all scurried away like ants from a magnifying glass. But we realized how much we enjoyed our friendship that dissipated by Timmy leaving.”
With momentum from the documentary and downtime during the pandemic, Schmersal decided to finally open the Brainiac archives — old suitcases filled with cassettes, photos and ephemera. “In the past, whenever I’d open the suitcases, I’d spiral out of control, then run away,” he said. “But I started thinking about why I’ve held on to them for so long. And where they should go.”
Now, 26 years after Taylor’s death, Brainiac is releasing “The Predator Nominate EP,” featuring nine never-before-heard demos, on Friday. “There’s an eight-track reel-to-reel floating around with old recordings, but no one knows where it is,” Schmersal said. “But ‘Predator Nominate’ is Brainiac’s last concerted effort, our last complete thought, before the end.”
During the band’s brief run from 1992 to 1997, it released three full albums of chugging and sometimes sprawling punk that relied mostly on traditional rock instruments. Taylor, a singer, guitarist and keyboardist, also played a Moog, and often modulated his vocals with synths and effects, inspired by the Dayton funk innovator Roger Troutman. For its final EP, “Electro-Shock for President,” which arrived only weeks before Taylor’s death, Brainiac employed a more fully realized electronic palette that continues on “Predator Nominate.”
“Brainiac went electronic when harsh rock music wasn’t really being interpreted via electronics,” said Kelley Deal of the Breeders, whose sister and bandmate, Kim, produced the 1995 Brainiac EP “Internationale.” “They were always more liberal with song structure, but they still made radio-friendly music. Only they made it electronic. And so aggressive.”
“Predator Nominate,” which clocks in under 13 minutes, is more haunting than harsh. The title track channels early Cure recordings; “Smothered Inside” recalls Brainiac’s indie-rock beginnings; lighthearted synth vignettes like “The Game” balance sad, jarring songs like “Going Wrong”; and “Kiss the Dog” is a pop gem.
The band’s unexpected release of previously unheard music comes with another surprise: a return to the road. Brainiac is playing a handful of U.S. dates and a brief tour of the United Kingdom with Mogwai, whose singer and guitarist, Stuart Braithwaite, shared a bill with the band in the mid-90s as a budding musician. “They were hands down the weirdest and most engaging band I’d seen,” Braithwaite wrote in his recent memoir. “Super melodic but incredibly obtuse.”
Schmersal, who traditionally sang backup, will now serve as lead singer. “No one understands the nuances of this music like we do,” he said. “If we don’t perform it, you’ll never hear it this way.” The Dayton guitarist, vocalist and synth player Tim Krug, a student of the band for some 30 years, will join for the tour.
Trent, the band’s drummer, emphasized that Taylor is irreplaceable. “For us, this is a way to still be in awe of Tim, to honor him, or else we wouldn’t do it. And I wish people could see how much joy and life and healing Tim’s mom gets out of this,” he said. “Tim was one in a million.”
In the years since Brainiac’s premature end, Schmersal, who is now based in Palm Springs, Calif., founded the band Enon and went on to play with Caribou, Crooks on Tape and Vertical Scratchers. Monasterio, a freelance motion-graphics designer, moved to Los Angeles. Trent still lives in Dayton, where he serves as associate pastor at Lifepointe Church and director of a local nonprofit, Hope4 Kettering.
Monasterio, who befriended Taylor in fifth grade, called the release “probably the final chapter on Brainiac,” and suggested others might take inspiration from it: “Maybe someone will tap into Tim’s genius and make something beautiful. I think Tim would want that, too.”
He recalled a conversation with his bandmate that has eerie resonance today. “One time, I was out with Tim, and I remember him saying, ‘We have to rise like a phoenix from the flames,’” Monasterio remembered. “He was saying Brainiac had to be reborn in some way.”