Photo: Lee Ann McGuire

New Transmissions: An Interview with Brainiac’s John Schmersal

With a new book and an upcoming tour, beloved cult band Brainiac are enjoying a resurgence. Lead singer and guitarist John Schmersal discusses this and more.

Justin Vellucci
J-Card Press
16 May 2024

“I have a weird relationship with music. I love it dearly, but I’m always looking at the complexities of it. I can’t escape that, even though the best music comes from a basic unawareness of that,” said John Schmersal, guitarist and current lead singer. “With Brainiac, we just went fast, kept moving forward.” 

He joined the band for their second album, Bonsai Superstar, and his unique guitar work helped the band develop the hyperactive, idiosyncratic sound that became its calling card.

While Brainiac are now regarded as one of the critical bands of the 1990s, their blend of noise, synthesizers, and pop sensibilities also made them one of the weirdest of the era. Proudly hailing from Dayton, Ohio, they blended home-state touchstones such as Devo and Pere Ubu with the quirky pop of Guided by Voices to deliver music that is highly influential but never fully replicated. They still sound like the future, over 30 years after their debut. 

Brainiac’s live shows drew people in due to the charisma of their lead singer, the late great Timmy Taylor. Commanding the stage with his flamboyant thrift fashions, unruly dances, and vocals fed through Moog synthesizers, samples, and noise, he was a showman at a time when many lead singers were content to gaze at their navels and mumble or scream. 

Despite his penchant for piling on vocal effects and noise to songs, he also had a pop sensibility under the chaotic energy. For the uninitiated, “Go Freaks Go” might be the best summary of the band’s chaotic, relentless energy. “Fucking with the Altimeter” is a shining example of their willful weirdness, while “V1NC3NT C0M3 0N D0WN” shows more of the pop side lurking beneath the madness.

After releasing two now-classic records on Grass Records, Smack Bunny Baby, and the aforementioned Bonsai Superstar, they moved on to vaunted indie institution Touch & Go Records for H1551NG PR1G5 1N 5TAT1C C0UTUR3 and Electro-Shock for President, which turned out to be their final release with the label and also with Taylor. They were days away from signing with Interscope Records and talking to Rick Rubin about their major-label debut when Taylor died in a one-vehicle car crash due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“When we were courted by majors, they were hoping that this band that’s wild and unique and original would become a tastemaker,” Schmersal said. “It did make us wonder if they actually wanted what we had to offer them. Were we going to have to compromise our strange vision to release something on this label, or were they going to respect what we wanted to do and let us follow our vision? Our audience was used to us doing new and weird things,” he said. “The one thing I was really excited about was getting a message from Rick Rubin. He said, ‘Even if you sign with someone else, I still want to work on your record.’”

While Brainiac’s rise was cut short, only a few years later, bands with synthesizers and guitars broke out in a significant way. LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture, and others spearheaded the dance-punk charge they could have conceivably led. Along with similarly-minded peers such as Girls Against Boys, whose Eli Janney produced their full-length releases, their forward-thinking sounds were on the verge of a breakthrough. 

Two decades later, Brainiac’s second act as a performing band began when they reunited for a handful of dates, opening for Mogwai in Europe in 2023, and just kept going. “We only planned on a handful of shows, but the dates were enough of a springboard to add on some headlining dates. We have been having a lot of fun playing again. Mogwai have been around as long as we have, but lots of younger people were coming to their shows, and some people were there specifically to see us,” Schmersal said. 

“Mogwai and their audiences were so supportive. It is exciting to see younger audiences’ interest in bands like Unwound and Les Savy Fav.” Unfortunately, that tour with Mogwai was also filled with illness. “We all got sick. I lost my voice on the last day of the tour in Cincinnati. We wound up playing another show in Cincy to make up for it,” Schmersal said.

Despite the tragic end of the band’s first chapter, Brainiac’s legacy looms large in contemporary music. Nine Inch Nails, Death Cab for Cutie, and At the Drive-in have all cited the group as inspiration. The documentary film Transmissions After Zero was released to streaming in 2020 after making the festival circuit and is a love letter to Brainiac, telling the story while showcasing their enduring legacy. It ends with a tribute concert stacked with participation from bands who were part of Brainiac’s story, including Girls Against Boys and Les Savy Fav.

“When the documentary came out, the director wanted us to play in a tribute show. My least favorite part of every music doc is when all the people get back together to jam, but all the Brainiac guys were in New York, and the Jesus Lizard were playing the next night,” Schmersal said.

There have also been a handful of archival releases. The Predator Nominate EP, which includes unreleased material, came that year as well, following two archival releases in 2021. It has been framed by critics and writers as the major label record start but is more of a sister EP to Electro Shock for President. “I’m amazed that it is as exciting to people as it is. Some of those ideas might have wound up on the major label debut, but it was all from one era [the Electro Shock sessions]. The newer songs that we were playing live at the time were more likely to have been on the next record”, Schmersal said.

“Tim’s pop sensibility is in there all mangled up as a backdrop for a melody. We were starting to improvise more, and we were using instruments in a new context. I was really excited about the music that we were going to make. We were all trying new things and trying to figure them out. [Attic Tapes release] ‘Signal Flow’ is more representative of what we were going to do on the next record. We were jamming together and using new and unfamiliar elements. I don’t think much about the Predator Nominate demos, but I’ll always wonder what would have come from the jamming,” he said.

Consequently, these recently-released, not-ready-for-prime-time tracks aren’t the focus of live shows. “We do play a couple of the Predator Nominate songs on tour. We want to do things right. People want to hear the older songs. We have leaned into the early records as they hit anniversaries,” Schmersal said.

Brainiac are gearing up for some shows in May and celebrating the release of a biography that same month. The tour will start in Toronto and include a stop at the Caterwaul Music Festival in Minneapolis before returning home to Ohio. The self-titled book, written by Justin Vellucci, is built on interviews with current and former band members, friends, family, and others. It is the first release from J-Card Press, a new independent publisher dedicated to short biographies of the best alternative, indie rock, hip hop, and riot grrl groups of the past 30 years.

Post-Brainiac, Schmersal formed the acclaimed Enon, whose second record, High Society, helped them build a dedicated following. His other pursuits include playing in the live version of Caribou and releasing a record with Rick Lee of Skeleton Key and Joey Galvan as Crooks on Tape. For now, his music focus is Brainiac, and he appreciates the belated attention the band is getting. 

“It’s amazing. Every time we do something, more stuff comes from it. The documentary, the releases, and the tours…all lit a fire to create interest. Sometimes a band comes out, and maybe their record was born at the wrong time, but later there’s an appetite for that type of music. There’s a lot of energy around the band right now,” Schmersal said. “I wish Timmy was here to experience all this.”