The rock scene of the early nineties, known either as the alternative rock or grunge movement depending on your inclinations, was in waning mode by 1997. Major changes had been steadily eroding the momentum, the most forceful being the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, effectively ending Nirvana. Pearl Jam had moved from rebels to institution; either a good or a bad thing if you were a fan or outside observer, but most saw this as a calcification into the classic rock strata that alt-rock purportedly ran parallel to, if not openly opposing (remember that one of the form’s major influences was punk, which Pearl Jam’s Neil Young/The Who leanings chafed against). Other notable shifts were the disbanding of Soundgarden in early 1997 and the death of Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon two years prior in 1995.
Alt-rock had been a boon to the record labels who had a new sound young purchasers were interested in and a veritable farm system, with the indie labels raising up acts that the majors then cherry-picked without a lot of grooming involved. Plus these bands had fairly sizable fanbase clout already, and it is always a plus to sign an act with a guaranteed purchasing block attached than one without. Now it looked as if it was all caving back in, but Interscope Records had an ace up their sleeve. On the say-so from one of their recent label inductees Beck (who never really joined Interscope so much as Universal bought into Interscope, merged it with Beck’s home label DGC, and thus the partnership resided) a band out of Dayton, Ohio that was making serious waves was about to hit the big time.
That band was Brainiac, which started in the early-90s on the Grass/BMG label, graduated to respected indie Touch & Go, and was now about to make the leap. They made a punky, thoroughly warped rock sound with ropey, rubbery guitar, an angry rhythm section, and keyboards that sounded not unlike a circuit-bent Speak And Spell having an epileptic seizure. The unifying force of the group was frontman Tim Taylor who yelped, hissed, whispered, shouted and spewed his vocals in an array of different accents. Brainiac possessed something many of their predecessors lacked alongside that uninterrupted aggression — a sense of humor.
The first record, Smack Bunny Baby, only hinted at possibilities that were made clearer on the second album Bonsai Superstar, their first Touch & Go release in the EP Internationale, subsequent album Hissing Prigs In Static Couture, and Jim O’Rourke-produced follow-up EP Electro-Shock For President. Each album refined their lunacy without dulling it, paring back excesses without denying them altogether. You could imagine the brass at Interscope believing the next alt-rock wave was upon them, and they really couldn’t be faulted for that assumption. Rock radio may well have been ready for the full-throated freakout of “I Am A Cracked Machine” right alongside the cartoonish and spastic “Kiss Me, You Jacked Up Jerk.” They may have also been ready for the Kraftwork-meets-post-punk “Flash Ram” or the naughty “Mr. Fingers.” But the age of the alt-rock movement was at an end and, seemingly, nothing could stop it’s closing.
In 1997, in the process of working on songs for their Interscope debut, Taylor experienced auto-mechanical difficulties. Apparently the accelerator pedal of his car stuck to the floor, the vehicle careened out of control, and struck a telephone pole with enough force to prompt it to explode. Chatter ensued that it seemed uncomfortably similar to a suicide. Figures close to Taylor denied this, saying he was in very good and positive spirits throughout. With the lingering sadness of Cobain’s suicide still fresh on the collective audience’s mind it was probably inevitable, if incorrect, that some would jump to that conclusion. Another detail which I cannot verify, and yet which has stuck frequently to Taylor’s story, was that he died in a new car that was purchased with his signing bonus from Interscope. With his death, and his psychotic vision of it silenced, the band ceased to be.
Bassist Juan Monasterio and drummer Tyler Trent moved on to other groups (with Trent performing for a time with another high-profile Dayton band, The Breeders). John Schmersal, guitarist, formed Enon which has carved out a formidable indie niche for itself post-Brainiac. But you might ask why this band, which purportedly held so much promise and industry enthusiasm, remains like a best-kept secret and why Taylor’s story never broke out. The answer to that resides in the fact that, just one week later, another alt-rock leading-light in Jeff Buckley would die, overshadowing the passing of Tim Taylor.
The deaths and dissolutions would continue from the Lego-block dis-assemblage of The Smashing Pumpkins to the overdose of Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley in 2002. Rap finally broke through as pop’s dominant sound with Sean Combs (Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy), Jay Z, and others claiming the top of the charts. Boy bands were once again fashionable as N’Sync started making waves. The pop tarts were fully active in the forms of Britney Spears, Christina Agulera, and so forth. The alt-rock ethos was truly a thing of the past now, returned to the indie labels where, in the eyes of 2012, the attrition only continued. Today, the biggest sounds of the underground are just as much rap (with the validation of the mixtape as a career-expander), electronic dance music, and hip-hop as they are in the mainstream. Newer pop tarts like Carly Rae Jepsen are side-by-side with boy idols like One Direction and Justin Bieber, and Jay Z alongside Kanye West are not the brash young soldiers anymore, but institutions in their own right, not unlike Pearl Jam in the late Nineties.
One has to wonder what the landscape might have been like had Brainiac succeeded.