Photo by Chuck Przybyl

 

Brainiac: Beloved Cult Band Celebrated in New Film

Big dreams, tragedy and unfulfilled potential pondered in SXSW 2019 documentary

“What if this all stops today?” In the SXSW 2019 world premiering documentary, Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero, which traces the short, but impactful life of the ’90s indie rock band, that is the question Brainiac’s bassist Juan Monasterio recalls asking himself in 1997. At the time, the Dayton, Ohio-based quartet, which also included vocalist and keyboard player Tim Taylor, drummer Tyler Trent, and guitarist John Schmersal, had just completed another stellar tour and was about to begin recording its major label debut.

“… to this day, that band is seared into my DNA because of how incredibly innovative they were,”

But, not long after that question flashed in Monasterio’s head, the unthinkable suddenly ended the band’s brilliant five-year run: Taylor was killed in a bizarre accident. That tragedy is where the film starts, but it soon rewinds to the band’s beginnings, and the screen is alive with Brainiac’s infectious, angular, distorted musical thrill ride.

Besides Monasterio, Trent, and Schmersal, interviewees include Taylor’s family and artists such as actor Fred Armisen, At the Drive-In’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, former Smashing Pumpkins and Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow, and Girls Against Boys’ Scott McCloud and Eli Janney.

 
Brainiac. Photo credit Marty Sosnowski

Brainiac. Photo credit Marty Sosnowski

 

Behind the film is director and co-producer, Eric Mahoney, who says that that level of participation helped push the project. “The level of connectivity and admiration they all had for Brainiac music was very powerful and very affirming that we were doing something of interest, something special,” explains Mahoney, a fellow Dayton native who saw Brainiac play while he was in high school.

“To this day, I devour music, film, and books, and to this day that band is seared into my DNA because of how incredibly innovative they were,” Mahoney says.

Mahoney long ago ditched his own musical ambitions for filmmaking. An internship with lauded indie director Jim Jarmusch led to a job on HBO’s The Wire, and in 2011, his documentary debut, North Dixie Drive. He followed up with the acclaimed narrative anthology film, Madly, for which Radhika Apte won a Best Actress award at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

For the Brainiac film, Mahoney partnered with an old friend and fellow musician, New York City-based video editor Ian Jacobs, and formed Hotshot Robot Productions. “Ian was a close confidant when I first started the project,” says Mahoney. “He was the one I was always bouncing ideas off: He and I share a brain.”

Along with interviews, stills, and stunning live and off-stage footage, the film includes animated scenes, which gives Taylor added voice. “There isn’t much that exists where he is speaking,” explains Mahoney. “We have these concerts; we have a couple of on-camera things. Animation was a way for us to breathe life into him, so he could also be a part of it.”

Taylor’s astounding musical background is a big part of the story: he learned to play drums as a toddler; by age five, when he met Monasterio, he was playing cello; at age 16 he was playing with his father, the late jazz guitarist Terry Taylor, in a band of avant-garde jazz elite.

 
Brainiac Transmissions After Zero. Photo by Adam Richer

Brainiac Transmissions After Zero. Photo by Adam Richer

 

Janney, who produced Brainiac’s albums, says Taylor could have tossed off palatable chart-topping songs, but intentionally did things the wrong way. Janney talks of him “perverting the sound,” similar to how Picasso, not content as a great portraitist, deconstructed and disrupted painting. “Tim was that elevated an artist: that jazz band he played in was astounding. Disruptive is an apt adjective,” agrees Mahoney.

Taylor and his fellow disruptors thrived in the mid-90s, as noise rock emerged from the underground after grunge’s non-conformism kicked down the doors to the mainstream. In the film, McCloud calls this music scene “the gold rush.”

“That was something Ian and I were interesting in dealing with under the umbrella of the story. It is almost a period piece,” says Mahoney.

The documentary’s wider arc also looks at the major record label system and a brief time when A&R reps looked in the indie rock scene for the next big thing. Success was based on recording sales and live performance reputation, not YouTube views or social media barnstorming. “I don’t think people have any context of what was happening and the culture of that now,” says Mahoney.

Brainiac cashed in and signed to Interscope but never made that major label album that could have reached wider notice, something Mahoney knows could limit the documentary’s commercial appeal, but the story had to be told.

“The intention behind this is not that—obviously,” Mahoney says about making money. “We believe in it because it is an amazing story and also it’s a Shakespearean tragedy. It just happens to be about a group of artists that I couldn’t hold in higher regard.”

Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero screens as part of the SXSW Film Festival’s 24 Beats Per Second program.

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