Loads of music documentaries get released every year, but few of them leave you thinking that they had to be made. However, Eric Mahoney's Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero feels utterly necessary. The movie relates the tragic story of the Dayton, Ohio's Brainiac, whose feral-genius frontman Tim Taylor died after his 1972 Mercedes Benz crashed into a pole in 1997, just as his group was on the verge of ascending to possible major-label stardom. He was 28. As Mahoney eloquently reveals over an hour and 50 minutes, Brainiac were a uniquely special force in indie rock throughout the '90s, but they've largely faded from public consciousness. This doc goes a long way toward righting that wrong.
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Mahoney gets some big names to enthusiastically praise Brainiac, including Fred Armisen, Steve Albini, Hole's Melissa Auf der Maur, Jim O'Rourke, Melvins' Buzz Osbourne, At the Drive-In/Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and Jesus Lizard's David Yow. Surprisingly, though, it's Matt Berninger of the National (not a band you'd associate with the galvanizing, spastic electro-rock of Brainiac) who offers one of the most cogent assessments: “They sound like you’d get zapped if you touched them.” Exactly!
As the film's live footage amply proves, Brainiac were fucking live wires onstage, especially Taylor, who spent much of his gig time leaping with a mic in his hand while pounding a Moog or slashing a guitar. For his energy and charisma, this skinny Midwestern white boy drew many comparisons to James Brown. Certainly, Taylor was not your typical indie-rock icon. He was something of a child prodigy who got into jazz and classical music early, thanks to his guitar- and cello-playing parents, and he had his first drumkit at age 3. Taylor also had the good sense as a young man to snatch up used Moog synths when they were not as valued as they are now.
With Brainiac, Taylor would map out all of their songs and then bring them to his bandmates, and if they thought one would be a hit, he would distort it into something weirder. Inspired by Nation of Ulysses, Brainiac tapped their producer, Girls Against Boys' Eli Janney, to record their first album, Smack Bunny Baby. (He went on to do Bonsai Superstar and Hissing Prigs in Static Couture, as well.) Janney notes that “Doing stuff intentionally the wrong way to get a unique sound out of it” was a Brainiac hallmark.
Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero traces the hard-luck band's gradual ascent: moving from micro-indie, to medium-sized indie to large indie label; going from playing to zero people in Birmingham, Alabama to touring with Jesus Lizard and Girls Against Boys and Beck to playing Lollapalooza; appearing on MTV's 120 Minutes; being courted by Interscope and American Recordings, whose superproducer Rick Rubin wanted to work with them. Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor were fans. Everything was going relatively smoothly... until Taylor's death.
All of Brainiac's members—Juan Monasterio, Michelle Bodine, Tyler Trent, and John Schmersal—bring interesting and emotional perceptions to their brief yet action-packed career and their ill-fated bandmate. It's not easy to hold back the tears when they talk about the horrible event. It was devastating, to say the least.
Footage of the 2017 Brainiac tribute show in New York and a Texas School of Rock band playing their material close the film on a stirring note, and reaffirm Brainiac's continued relevance more than 20 years after their untimely demise.
Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero screens tonight at Northwest Film Forum.