Director and OSU alum Eric Mahoney on the making of 'Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero,' premiering locally at the Wex
There’s a tagline on the movie poster for “Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero,” director/producer Eric Mahoney’s rock doc about Dayton band Brainiac, a boundary-pushing foursome that went from local favorite to nationally acclaimed rising star in the '90s grunge era.
“This is a tragic story... but it’s not a story about tragedy,” the poster declares.
That idea was forefront in the minds of Mahoney and the film’s editor/producer, Ian Jacobs, because there’s an aspect of Brainiac’s story that could easily overshadow everything else about the band. In 1997, right at the band’s creative peak, which coincided with A&R reps from major labels falling all over themselves trying to get Brainiac to sign eye-popping deals, the band’s electric frontman, Tim Taylor, died in a freak car accident.
“There's no sidestepping what happened,” Mahoney said recently by phone. “But we were making sure that in no shape or form was this ever going to be perceived as sensationalizing it or being melodramatic about it. That never interested me. … I was completely captivated by this group of artists and how compelling these guys are. This becomes a film about overcoming tragedy. It becomes a lot more universal. It’s a celebratory thing.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Mahoney’s history with Brainiac began in high school, when, as an aspiring Dayton musician, Mahoney immersed himself in the city’s music scene. “It was this source of both inspiration and pride that I'm living in a very small town, but there's a copious amount of really creative stuff happening here,” Mahoney said. “To me, [Brainiac] had the highest level of creativity, from their music to their dress, to their sensibilities and sense of humor. I always thought they were the whole package, and I think that their art stands up decades later. This has been a story that's been on the back burner for me for a long time. It's something I wanted to explore.”
So in late 2016, Mahoney began reaching out to Taylor’s family and members of Brainiac — bassist Juan Monasterio, guitarist John Schmersal, drummer Tyler Trent and original guitarist Michelle Bodine — who were all on board with Mahoney’s vision for “Transmissions After Zero,” which had its world premiere at SXSW earlier this year. On Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9-10, the Wexner Center will host the film’s Columbus premiere. Mahoney, an Ohio State alum, will introduce the film and then take part in a post-screening Q&A.
The film traces the band’s origins back to Taylor’s early experiences playing guitar in his father’s experimental jazz band, then forming Brainiac and becoming more and more experimental with his bandmates while also developing a frantic, impossible-to-ignore stage presence.
“The brilliance of [Brainiac], to me, is when you strip away all these layers and layers and layers, there is oftentimes a very melodic pop song at the base,” Mahoney said. “At its core, it's poppy, which was part of the reason people like them so much. It's not noise, you know? It's actually really melodic in a weird way.”
In addition to interviews with the band, Mahoney peppers the film with on-camera interviews featuring an A-list lineup of artists and musicians, including Fred Armisen, Matt Berninger (The National), Melissa Auf der Maur (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins), Steve Albini and more.
From the get-go, the film is never precious about Taylor and the band. “When someone's gone, the tendency is to wash their sins away,” Mahoney said. “We reiterate that this is a person with flaws. He isn't this saintly person that now isn't with us and that we will only speak of in the highest regard.”
Similarly, Mahoney made sure to let the personalities in the band shine through, which leads to plenty of hilarious moments in the first two-thirds of the film. “Ian and I, making the film, we laughed our asses off,” Mahoney said. “I'm always so happy when we sit in a theater with people and there's all these laughs for the first hour. These guys are super funny people, and they incorporated humor into who they were. And so we absolutely wanted to mirror that in this film, as well.”
Toward the end of the film, it becomes apparent that the surviving members of Brainiac had barely processed Taylor’s death until they were forced to on camera. “It was so traumatic, and they were so young. Having their lives change like that overnight was such a blow that I think their coping mechanism was to compartmentalize it. I don't think they spent any time amongst themselves or their closest people talking about it. I think they just completely shut down and moved on in different ways,” Mahoney said. “All of their wives collectively came up to me after the premiere, at the after-party, and were like, ‘Thank you. They haven't even talked to me about this, ever.’”
For Mahoney, helping Taylor’s bandmates, friends and family work through that loss by recalling their favorite Brainiac memories was the best part of making the film. “The most flattering thing to me,” Mahoney said, “is thinking that in some small fashion, doing an art project created a sense of healing or closure for the people that went through something that was pretty horrific.”