It has been more than 20 years since the tragic death of Dayton-based musician Tim Taylor.
His life and music are being celebrated in Brooklyn-based filmmaker Eric Mahoney’s new documentary, “Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero.” The career of Taylor’s beloved but short-lived ’90s band is explored in the film, which premiered at South By Southwest in Austin in March. It has its Dayton premiere with a series of sold-out screenings at The Neon on Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20.
“I was actually shaking for the first hour,” original Brainiac guitarist Michelle Bodine said. “The humor in it finally calmed me down. I thought the flow of the film was great — the history, childhood stories, all leading up to how we all got together. The animation sequences were funny. Hearing Tim’s speaking voice really got to me because it’s been so long since I’ve heard it. There were a few tearjerker moments for sure.”
The doc features archival live footage of the band, old MTV clips, animation and new interviews with fans such as actor Fred Armisen, Melissa Auf Der Maur of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, and producer Steve Albini. There are also interviews with musical associates, surviving Brainiac members and Taylor’s friends and family.
“That band was so hyper-creative,” said the film’s editor Ian Jacobs, who also leads the Brooklyn-based band Monograms. “Every time you thought you knew what they were going to do, they’d do a 180 and do something completely different. That has been a really cool experience for me and really inspiring for my own music. It’s been really cool to sort of walk in those shoes for a little while. Tim was an amazing artist. He deserves his story to be told and hopefully we did it justice.”
Brainiac was formed in January 1992 with Taylor on vocals, guitar and keyboard and Juan Monasterio on bass. The childhood friends soon added Bodine on guitar and Tyler Trent on drums. The new outfit played its first show under the name We’ll Eat Anything at Wright State University on March 12. By the time the band opened for touring act Lungfish at New Space on April 11, the name was upgraded to the now familiar Brainiac. The rest of the year was spent recording, rehearsing and playing regionally, including a winning run through the summer-long Dayton Band Playoffs at Canal Street Tavern.
In September, Limited Potential in Chicago released the group’s debut, the “Superduperseven” 7-inch single. A split-single with Bratmobile on Dayton’s own 12X12 Records followed in early 1993. The quartet soon hit the road, and earned a reputation as an incendiary live band with Taylor gyrating and wailing like a possessed cross between James Brown and Iggy Pop.
New York-based Grass Records soon snatched up Brainiac and released the band’s first two full-length’s, “Smack Bunny Baby” (1993) and “Bonsai Superstar” (1994).
Between the two albums, Bodine was replaced by guitarist John Schmersal. This lineup went on to sign with Chicago-based Touch & Go Records, which released “Internationale” (1995), “Hissing Prigs in Static Couture” (1996) and “Electro-Shock for President” (1997).
Punk and new wave were obvious influences on the music of Brainiac, but that was merely a jumping off point for these sonic adventurers. While critics often focused on the group’s retro-futuristic noise collages, squalling guitars and synths and tone-bending experimentation, there was always a strong sense of melody and pop songcraft buried beneath the din.
Brainiac had recently completed a European tour opening for Beck and was on the verge of signing a major label record deal when tragedy struck. Taylor died in a single car accident on North Main Street in Dayton in May 1997 and the group immediately disbanded.
Brainiac’s history and more is covered in the documentary, whose origins stretch back to December 2016.
“That’s when I first started talking to John, Tyler, Juan and Michelle to see if they were interested in doing a documentary,” Mahoney said. “I reached out to some periphery people really early like (musician and producer) Eli Janney. I’d never met Juan and Tyler in my life. I kind of knew John from opening for him a few times and I knew Michelle from playing in Murder Your Darlings with (her brother) Scott.
“I really didn’t know anybody terribly well,” he continued. “I just made some calls to get some familiarity with everybody and make them comfortable with what I wanted to do. We talked different stories and anecdotes we might want to explore.”
For Bodine, Mahoney was a no-brainer to helm the project given his local connection and his experience as not only a documentarian, but also as a former member of Murder Your Darlings.
“I knew Eric was the right person for the job and I was excited he even thought of doing it in the first place,” Bodine said. “He’s from Dayton, he saw Brainiac back in the day and he’s known me and my brother Scott for a long time. It just seemed right and made sense.”
While “Transmissions After Zero” features animation from Daniel Corkery, the film was basically a two-man operation with Mahoney directing and co-producing the low budget film with editor Ian Jacobs.
“Having Ian handle the editing was literally the difference in this thing happening or not,” Mahoney said. “It changed everything and took it from an idea to a film. When he came on, I was a guy with a bunch of hard drives with 75 hours or whatever of interviews, a stack of pictures and some archival footage to make the movie. Without that collaboration, it never would have happened.
“And we’re very lucky because Ian and I have identical aesthetic and opinions about things,” Mahoney continued. “We didn’t have to spend a lot of time debating each other and that’s one of the reasons we got to work so incredibly fast. We work really, really quickly because we share a lot of the same tastes and in the way in which we approach storytelling.”
The two formed the production company Hotshot Robot. While the new documentary has been getting rave reviews in its limited screenings, the team has yet to secure a distribution deal.
“For a music doc, Brainiac is an unknown quantity to most of the world,” Jacobs said. “It can be hard to sell that on the front end, I guess, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing on the back end. I’m really excited about the final product. We wanted to tell Tim’s story the right way and to celebrate this tragic story the proper way. It’s more about his life. I can’t wait for people in Dayton to see what we’ve been cooking up.”
The surviving members were all rocked by Taylor’s death and struggled with grief and depression in various ways.
Schmersal is the only member actively making music. In the ashes of Brainiac, he relocated to New York. In 1998, he released “Forget Everything,” a solo album of home recorded songs under the name John Stuart Mill. He formed Enon in 1999, which released five albums before folding in 2011. Since 2008, he has been a touring member of Caribou. Schmersal is currently based in L.A. where he fronts the band Vertical Scratchers, which released the album, “Daughter of Everything,” in 2014. He has also released two albums as Crooks on Tape.
Following Taylor’s death, Monasterio relocated to Los Angeles, where he currently works as a motion graphics designer. He is also a member of the group Model/Actress, which released a self-titled EP in 2006. In 2015, an expanded version of the EP was released via Bandcamp. Monasterio has also directed music videos for Enon, Yoko Ono, Black Eyed Peas, the Strokes, David Grey and others.
Trent had his share of difficulties following Taylor’s death. Other than a brief stint working with the Breeders, he stayed away from music for years. As he says in the documentary, he spiraled out of control for a decade. In 2007, he became active in his church. Today, he is an assistant pastor at that church, where he plays music weekly. He eventually played in a few other groups, most recently with the short-lived Swim Diver led by Nathan Peters of Lioness and Captain of Industry.
After leaving Brainiac, Bodine formed the band O-Matic with her guitar-slinging brother Scott. The hard-rocking indie quartet released the single “Teenage Make-Out King” b/w “No Pinky, No Leather” on Dayton-based Simple Solution Records in 1995. The following year, O-Matic released its lone full-length, “Dog Years,” on Grass Records, the same label that helped launch Brainiac’s career. After, O-Matic, Bodine formed Shesus, which would be her last active outfit. The band signed to New York-based Narnack Records, which released the full-length “Love You … Loves You Not” in 2003 and the EP “Ruined it for You” in 2004.
The celebration of Brainiac’s music will continue when these surviving members of the group reunite for a rare live show with openers Lung from Cincinnati at Brightside in Dayton on Saturday, April 20. Like the screenings, this show is sold out.