“Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, he’s fucking dead, the guy from Brainiac is fucking dead. I want this to mean something to every fucking one of you,” shouted Jeff Buckley from the stage in Memphis on May 26, 1997. He was crying out for Tim Taylor, the 28-year-old leader of rising synth-punks Brainiac, who had died in a car crash near his Dayton, Ohio, home three days earlier. Disturbingly, Buckley himself would drown just three days later.
The son of jazz guitarist Terry Taylor, Tim formed Brainiac (often stylized as 3RA1N1AC) in January 1992 with bassist Juan Monasterio, guitarist Michelle Bodine (later replaced by John Schmersal), and drummer Tyler Trent under the name We’ll Eat Anything. Taylor employed his jazz upbringing in Brainiac, but pursued a more futuristic sonic palette. He sang through vintage Moog and Oberheim synthesizers, while the band frequently voiced its noisy guitars in seconds. On stage, the band was primal, with Taylor spastically writhing around. “They were the greatest live band of all time,” says Charles Bissell of the Wrens, who were early labelmates with Brainiac on Grass Records.
They quickly became a cornerstone of Dayton’s thriving ’90s rock scene, alongside the Breeders and Guided By Voices. Even among those soon-to-be alt icons, many heard and saw and believed that Brainiac was “the one.” They really came into their own when John Schmersal joined in 1994, bringing a new level of eccentricity to an already weird act. “There was a certain amount of individuality among our members, which is common among Ohio bands,” says Schmersal, who later formed Enon and Vertical Scratchers.
With the guitarist’s unique chord shapes now in the mix, Brainiac released what many (including us) believe to be their greatest album, 1995’s Bonsai Superstar, before signing to indie stalwarts Touch and Go Records. As Brainiac’s sound grew increasingly electronic with the release of 1996’s Hissing Prigs in Static Couture, the band’s profile continued to rise as well. Both Elektra and Interscope were courting Brainiac, then in pre-production for their fourth album. Hoping to finalize the signing, Interscope bought the band members all plane tickets to New York. But before they made it there, Brainiac came to a screeching halt.
“Juan [Monasterio] and I were about to drive back to Cincinnati [their home at the time],” says Schmersal, recalling his last memory of Taylor. “Tim said, ‘The lady at the BMV is this cute girl, I’m going to put on my best charm.’ He was going to try to sweet talk her into letting him pass an emissions test. He opened the trunk and showed us how, from the wheels up into the trunk, was all rusted out, so the exhaust was just going up into the car. He basically showed us what killed him.”
“I remember sitting on the front porch of his house in North Dayton, after what would be our last Brainiac practice, and all of us being very optimistic about the future,” says Monasterio. “In the same conversation, Tim told me how he had been periodically vomiting over the last day or so, and he had no idea why. At the time, I didn't make much of it much of it, but later it became apparent that was probably a symptom of the carbon monoxide poisoning that took his life.”
Taylor spent the afternoon of May 22 trying to patch the rusted-out floorboards of his new (to him) green 1977 Mercedes Benz. That evening, he worked in his studio until around midnight, when he decided to go to one his favorite weekly events: Disco Night at 1470 West. Around 3:25 a.m., Taylor collapsed behind the wheel less than a mile from his house, his car crashing into two poles and a fire hydrant before bursting into flames. “I know he wasn’t drunk that night because I stole his last beer,” said Molly O’Neil, a longtime friend of Taylor’s who was at 1470 West. The coroner’s report confirmed what those closest to Taylor already knew: it was carbon monoxide poisoning.
In the years since, everyone from Trent Reznor to Wayne Coyne has expressed admiration for Brainiac’s distinct blend of noisy rock and extreme electronics. In remembrance of Taylor, whose tragic passing occurred 20 years ago this week, a handful of his musical peers and admirers share their favorite Brainiac songs and speak to his legacy.
Taylor at a 1993 Brainiac show. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)
Kelley Deal: “On ‘Fresh New Eyes,’ Tim sings, ‘In the trunk of a Plymouth in Memphis/She thinks she’s made a mistake.’ My ears landed on that couplet. It made my stomach drop in the most fabulous way. I just have a lot of questions about that song.
The Breeders played a show with Brainiac at Antioch College [in ’92 or ’93]. That was my first time seeing them, and they were so exciting to watch. It was totally not of-the-moment—not the Seattle sound that was happening. And it still sounds as fresh and creative as it was then. People are still talking about Brainiac. It doesn’t sound dated. That’s a rare thing. That’s everything.”
Jim Macpherson: “I met Tim when he was in a band called Dance Positive in ’88 or ’89. He was the rhythm guitar player. At first he was so quiet and shy, compared to what he was in Brainiac. Total Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He could just take the whole crowd hostage. Everybody was under his spell.
Kim [Deal] did the mixing [for Brainiac’s 1995 Internationale EP] at Cyberteknics in Dayton, and she told me to come down and visit. I stood in the hallway, on the other side of the glass, as all four of them were recording ‘Go Freaks Go.’ It was amazing how much energy was in that little room.”
The Wrens’ Charles Bissell
“Their song ‘Draag’ short-circuited my noggin. It was sort of the showcase song for Tim processing his vocals, both live and on record, through some old synth that allowed audio-in [for a microphone input]. When you first saw the thing you'd think, ‘Damnit, why didn't I think of that?’ or ‘Where the hell did he find that piece of equipment to even do that?’ Both of which were much harder to come to pre-Internet.
I was admittedly a lot younger, and even less secure, but I don't know if I've ever felt the sting of creative jealousy in quite the same way as seeing him the first few times and knowing that we’d be sharing the same habitat and competing for valuable resources—like beer, audience and label attention, or publicists.
Tim is the focus of a lyric on 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.”
Deerhoof’s Gregory Saunier
“Deerhoof was going through one of our existential crisis phases: ‘What do we do? What should we sound like? Why are we a band?’ And then Satomi [Matsuzaki, vocalist and guitarist] and I were in the car and something came on the radio like a beam of sunshine from the heavens saying, ‘this.’ I think it was ‘K155 M3, U JACK3D UP J3RK.’ Brainiac got us out of that crisis and onto to the next one, which was: ‘Who is Brainiac, and how are we going to sound as cool as them?”
Girls Against Boys’ Eli Janney (Brainiac producer)
“My favorite Brainiac song is probably ‘Hot Metal Dobermans.’ They really had come into their sound, so great and insane at the same time, full of confidence and mystery. I’ve been asked how we made some of those sounds, and I honestly can’t remember. So many weird setups during the mixing, all hands on the board moving faders and punching things in and out all the time. It was madness. Pure genius.”
Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom
“‘1 AM A CRACK3D MACH1N3’ is so raw and unique. I saw them play at a DIY club in Dayton called New Space, when I was around 16 or 17. They really blew me away. I've thought recently about how nobody has ever sounded like Brainiac. I'm sure people have tried, but there is just something so distinctive about Tim's songs. There's this raw energy and creativity to them. Never trying to sound exactly like something. I can't even put a finger on what they do sound like, other than themselves. You can't get purer than that.”