While several books have explored the fertile 1990s indie rock scene, precious few documentaries truly capture the period’s excitement. “Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero,” which premiered at SXSW and which will have its New York premiere Friday, offers a notable peek into the era via the lens of this arty Dayton, Ohio-based band that reached the top of the underground before tragedy touched the band due to a car accident which took the life of the act’s charismatic lead singer, Tim Taylor, just before the band were set to sign with a major label.
“Transmissions After Zero,” directed by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Eric Mahoney — and with funding help from fellow Ohioan Trent Reznor and actor Mark Hammill — chronicles Brainiac’s unlikely rise and subsequent fall with intelligence and humor. Chronicling the saga of a band who almost made it big turns out to be as necessary as documenting the ones who did a few decades ago. Fans of the noisier side of alternative rock from the 1990s will appreciate interviews with names such as Fred Armisen (who played drums in Chicago band Trenchmouth before his “SNL” career, and who will be at Friday’s NYC screening), Nirvana/PJ Harvey producer Steve Albini, The National’s Matt Berninger, former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow and more. But the surviving band members and close family are the crux of the story, and they make the documentary compelling, even for those not familiar with Brainiac’s music. Below, Mahoney talks about how “Transmissions After Zero” came together, and most importantly why he feels the band is important.
The New York premiere of “Transmissions After Zero” takes place Friday, April 11 11 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn.
What made you want to focus on Brainiac for this documentary?
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio and was in high school during the mid-‘90s. Being an aspiring musician myself, I was tremendously influenced and fascinated by the amount of amazing indie rock coming out of Dayton — the Breeders and Guided by Voices, to name a few. To me, however, the most innovative, original and inspiring were Brainiac, so I’ve always followed this band and their story quite closely. Once Tim passed, I immediately thought of the band and how each of their lives did a complete 180 degree turn overnight. That always stuck with me through the years — what do you you do when you’re 25 years old, about to sign a major label record contract, and it’s all stripped away? That component along with the fact that Tim’s story — a musical genius who rapidly gained respect and notoriety in the music world and by all accounts was poised to a major artist, tragically died just before his “big break,” was always an epic tale to me. The fact that so many major artists continue to cite them as a major influence as well as a new generation of kids getting into this music solidified to me this was an incredible project and story to tackle.
Who were the most important people you spoke to about the band in the doc?
First and foremost, the bandmembers themselves, along with Tim’s mom. It also seemed like the proper amount of time had passed since Tim’s death that they were not only willing, but ready and enthusiastic talk about this was key. Their candidness, insight and transparency was amazing. In terms of a supporting cast, Eli Janney (the band’s longtime producer and friend) did an incredible job, Cedric Bixler-Zavala of the Mars Volta and At the Drive In was a wonderful interview, as was Dave Doughman, musician and close friend of the band. One of the easiest parts of the process was conducting the interviews because everyone’s intense love and enthusiasm for these guys was so evident and moving.
Was there anyone you tried to interview but couldn’t get?
There were a very small number of people I would have liked to have interviewed but didn’t get the chance [such as Trent Reznor]. For the most part 90% of everyone we reached out to immediately said yes, regardless of schedule.
You hint in the doc that Brainiac was close to signing a major label deal and had several offers before Tim died — who were they going to sign with?
The band was most likely about to accept a deal with Interscope but were also entertaining an offer from Capitol Records just before Tim passed away.
You could have almost done an entire other documentary on Tyler Trent, the band’s drummer — who now is the Creative Director at Lifepointe Church in Dayton. Any reason why you chose to really focus on the band’s story in the ‘90s instead of focusing on what the remaining band members are up to now?
I agree Tyler’s story is fascinating — battling a decade of addiction and then reconnecting with his childhood church in a major way to turn his life around is intense. But to me the central story is about this remarkable group of artists, in particular Tim Taylor, their influence and looking at the ‘90s almost as a period piece — tackling the cultural landscape and music industry which does not exist in that way anymore.
Besides Trent Reznor and Mark Hamill, were there any other famous investors who helped you initially on Kickstarter to make the film?
Trent and Mark were the two primary higher profile people who generously helped promote the two successful Kickstarter campaigns. Many cast members like Fred Armisen, Melissa Auf der Maur, Girls Against Boys, David Yow, The School of Rock and countless others also kindly promoted SXSW screenings and fund-raising events as well. People have been so enthusiastic and kind in wanting to help this story get noticed.
Had Tim not died, do you think Brainiac would still be playing shows today?
Dino Paredes, [formerly] of American Recordings, says in the film he believed, “Tim could have lead a paradigm shift in musical taste” and I agree. I think that band was so creative that they would still be making interesting music to this day and likely producing and guided other artists to do the same thing.