Maybe it's the alien radiation emanating from Hangar 18 at nearby Wright Patterson Air Force Base, or maybe there's just not a whole helluva lot else to do there. For whatever reason, Dayton, Ohio, has burst into one of the most prolific and unlikely hotbed rock scenes of the decade. Guided by Voices, the Breeders and the Amps lead the pack of bands that claim Dayton as home turf, but the experimental synth-punk quartet Brainiac is nipping at their heels with the recent release of its third album, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture.
Brainiac formed in 1992, but bassist Juan Monasterio and synth player/lead singer Tim Taylor have played together since fifth grade, when they competed for the first-chair cello spot in their elementary school orchestra.
"That year I got to be first chair, but in sixth grade I screwed up the audition," says Taylor. "The teacher felt bad for me, though, so he made us co-first chair. And these twins, the Garfield twins, were behind us, and he made them both co-second chair."
Just curious--any idea what the Garfield twins are up to these days?
"They're in a band."
Of course they are. They're from Dayton.
"Yeah, they started a band a couple years ago," says Taylor. "It's called Blue September. It's sort of a religious rock act. They sound like that English group Take That, except not as teen-idolish."
Well, it doesn't look like we can expect a Brainiac/Blue September "Dayton Rock" package tour anytime this millennium, unless one of the two groups takes a screaming stylistic turn. Brainiac's 1993 debut LP, Smack Bunny Baby, sounded like the demon offspring of a menage a trois among Sonic Youth, Pere Ubu and the hyperconfrontational D.C. punkers Nation of Ulysses. Smack Bunny Baby had melodies, but they were all but buried under disjointed (but somehow charming) chunks of noise, most notably the sci-fi dissonance of a vintage Moog synthesizer Taylor had picked up in a Cleveland pawnshop for $30. Released on Grass Records, Smack Bunny Baby was a commercial dud but a critics' darling--it topped off Spin magazine's annual list of the "10 Best Albums of the Year You Didn't Hear."
Brainiac's first guitarist took an extended normality break after Smack Bunny Baby's release, and the band picked up Daytonian ax grinder John Schmersal as a replacement (rounding out the band is Tyler Trent on drums). Taylor says the change in lineup only weirded out the band's sound more. "John's even a little stranger than the rest of us. He pushed us further out on the edge."
Case in point: Bonsai Superstar, the follow-up recording. Alt-rock power chords smashed against swirling force fields of Moog. Demonic vocals heavily processed through a variety of distortion apparatus. Oddball samples, splattered song structures and noise, noise, noise. Listening to Bonsai, you get the idea that Brainiac was more or less fucking around in the garage with a lot of toys, but doing so with an intuitive ability to sculpt the chaos into unheard-of forms.
"Our goal has always been to create something thoroughly modern," Taylor says. "Rock 'n' roll is on its last legs because people are killing it with all this recycling of sounds. I don't like any retro movement in any way. We've been labeled a retro act because of the Moog, but that's a misconception. We're all about new--and I don't mean New Wave."
Taylor recently ditched his Moog--which made its final appearance on Brainiac's latest recording--in favor of a mid-'80s Oberheim synthesizer. Basically a modern adaptation of the old modular synthesizers, which looked and operated a lot like telephone switchboards, an Oberheim can achieve more complex combinations of sounds than Taylor's old keyboard. "The Moog had become a trademark, and you have to reject trademarks to build new strengths," he says.
On the new Hissing Prigs album, Brainiac ditched another standard by subduing its typically ferocious guitar work. "I feel like we've done about all we want to with the electric guitar," Taylor says. "The new Guided by Voices album is stripped down to a more pure rock essence. Brainiac is going exactly the other way."
Which means more sampling--like the eerie bite of some man reading a poem in middle English on "The Vulgar Trade"--more synthesizer barrages and loops, more sound effects and even more vocal effects. On one cut off the new album, "This Little Piggy," Taylor's vocals are doubled by a binary singsong voice that distinctly resembles the evil computer on the early-'80s video game Gorf.
"I got that using an ancient Texas Instruments home computer with a voice modulator," Taylor explains. "I remembered playing with it about ten years ago and went and dug it out of my attic. I'd lost all the books, and it took me days to figure out how to program it, but basically you just type in one sentence at a time and it spits it back at you in that insane artificial intelligence voice."
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Taylor writes all the lyrics, but most of his words are distorted beyond comprehension save the occasional snippet that comes through like a phrase snatched from a broken radio transmission. "The lyrics may be buried sonically," he says. "But they usually mean more than we let on."
Take the Prigs track "I'm a Cracked Machine." Taylor says it represents his most common theme--"the mechanization of life."
"It bothers me how often I see people trying to break out of their lives like machines trying to reject their design," he says. "It makes me think we're all programmed. I'm not saying people are controlled by some scientist on Mars, but I do believe our lives are controlled to a large degree by our genes, our class, our parents. To that extent, I'm afraid we're not much more than robots with flesh on the outside."
Brainiac is scheduled to perform on Monday, July 1, at Boston's in Tempe, with Trans Am, and Jimmy Eat World. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).