Brainiac 5 interview

May 2, 2014

Brainiac 5 interview

Formed out of the ashes of free festival favourites the Half
Human Band – also featuring Griffin – the initial Brainiac 5 line-up of
guitarist/vocalists Charles Taylor (aka Charlie Nothing) and Bert Biscoe,
bassist John ‘Woody’ Wood and drummer Steve Hudson made a name for themselves
on the isolated yet thriving Cornish pub, club and festival scene. Coming to
the attention of the NME with their Mushy Doubt EP, and with Richard Booth of
early Stiff signings Plummet Airlines replacing Biscoe, the band made the move
to London to enjoy the fruits of a gig circuit enlivened by punk. However, they
split before World Inside could be released, the album eventually seeing the
light of day in 1988 via Reckless Records, the label arm of the secondhand
record empire founded by Taylor, also responsible for releases by such psych
legends as Bevis Frond, Black Sun Ensemble and Mu.
Fast forward to 2013 and with Taylor returning to the UK
after 20 years running Reckless stores in the States, the opportunity to
reconvene the Brainiacs results in Space Is The Place, a 10-inch EP of new
recordings on Bucketfull Of Brains magazine founder Nigel Cross’s Shagrat
label. Garnering effusive reviews from the likes of The Wire and Shindig!
magazines, and with Charlie and Woody now joined by another Plummet alumnus
Duncan Kerr on guitar, along with Nick Onley on sax and flute and Wayne Worrell
on drums, Brainiac 5 are once again very much a going concern. A long strange
trip indeed!
We are really pleased to share their story.
Who were the original members of the band and how did
you all meet?
Colin Hill: By 1976 three of the original members, John
‘Woody’ Wood, Charlie Taylor, and Steve Hudson had made the move westward to
Cornwall and had began hanging out with local musicians, including agitprop
poet Bert Biscoe. Woody was the first to arrive.  In his youth he’d worked as doorman at the
legendary Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, London (occasionally sitting in with
bands on harmonica), and shared flats with Eric Clapton and Guy Stevens.  After a spell in Canada, he’d settled in
Penzance and worked as a structural engineer, becoming a music and arts
promoter at weekends.  Initially he took
over The Mermaid Folk Club at The Gurnard’s Head Hotel in Zennor and then
set-up Jacey’s Blues Bar in the sail loft of The London Inn in Penzance with
Sundays being set aside for ‘Jazz, weirdness and poetry’. 
Charlie Taylor (aka Charlie Nothing) from 1971 to 1973 had
played a pear-shaped Vox in the legendary, guitar-based, very loose and very hairy,
Half Human Band, regulars on the ‘free festival’ scene including appearances at
Windsor and Trentishoe.  Although his
version of the band was never recorded, a couple of their songs were later
resurrected by the Brainiacs.  
After starting out on bass, Steve Hudson (who was a huge fan
of The Legion of Superheroes) decided to follow in his brother Al’s footsteps
and took up the drums.  When Al moved out
of London to play with some of the more professional Cornish bands, Steve ended
up in Penzance too.
Bert Biscoe was the
only native Cornishman in the band.  He
had been active as a song-writer, poet and radical thinker, (including
‘Brengun’ a 42 page epic poem), performing in folk clubs and at festivals and
doing support gigs at university in North Wales.
All four were keen to experiment musically and given their
thirst for the obscure and arcane it was inevitable that, in such a relatively
small community, their paths would lead them to Jacey’s Blues Bar, where they
formed a new band comprising Bert, Charlie, Steve (aka Heartbeat) and Woody,
which sprang spontaneously from a jam in a Pendeen garage.  Initially named Roadmaster (possibly after
the Gene Clark album?), at Steve’s suggestion they eventually settled on . .
.   The Brainiac Five!
Woody: initially this jam was set up to record some of
Bert’s songs that he wanted to put on cassettes to give as Christmas presents.
These songs came from when he was living at my place. He would get up early
every morning, go and buy newspapers, then randomly pick headlines and write a
song based on that. I would get up, and before I could even make a cup of tea,
he would be hustling me to work with him on this stuff. There was always a lot
of it, and sometimes there would be some real gems buried amongst it all.  
You went from more punkish style towards psychedelia,
but never left the punk behind and in 1978 the two genres met in your EP Mushy
Doubt, which was produced by Martin Griffin (drummer of Hawkwind from 1980-83).
Roach Records released this EP. What’s the story behind making this EP and what
can you tell us about the songwriting process?
Charlie Taylor: Martin ran a recording studio in the
mid-Cornwall village of Roche.  He kindly
offered the band free studio time when no one else was booked in, and also made
active contributions as producer, engineer and honorary fifth Brainiac.  Our first release, the Mushy Doubt EP, came
out on Roach Records with the label design being a cross-section of rolled card
torn from a cigarette packet. The songs were written by me, except for “Endless
River”, which was written by Bert and me. My habit was to write songs first
thing in the morning, while still half asleep. In that way the songs more or
less wrote themselves without active participation from my conscious mind (I
was reading a lot of mystical literature at the time).  I was a big fan of Quicksilver Messenger
Service, Moby Grape and the like, but the Velvet Underground were also a huge
influence, especially Sister Ray.
Woody: The recording was done on 4 track, live, with only
minor overdubbing. We didn’t even stop between numbers, just kept going until
the end. 
Can anyone tell us about The Half Human Band?
Charlie Taylor: The group was
formed In Oxford in 1970. The early lineup was Charlie Taylor, ‘Hairy’ Mart
Isaacs (slide guitar and vocals), Dave Pugh (bass) and Martin Griffin (drums,
and later Hawkind member and Brainiac 5 producer). We played around the Oxford
area and at various free festivals, including Windsor with the Pink Fairies. We
started out playing a fair amount of blues, but as time went by became more and
more psychedelic and free form, featuring lengthy improvs from guest
saxophonist Pete McPhail and poet Crazy George. Recordings were made but
subsequently lost.
After the EP was out you had some lineup changes and
later you moved to London, where the punk scene was beginning to fade.
Colin Hill: Bert’s last Brainiac gig until 2012 was a
benefit in September 1978 for the (now French-based, world-famous) Footsbarn
Theatre Company in a marquee on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Enter Richard
‘Wildman’ Booth (lead guitar/vocal). 
Richard had played twin-lead guitar with Duncan Kerr in Plummet
Airlines, a terrific west-coast influenced band from Nottingham who’d made waves
on the London pub-rock circuit in the mid-70s, recorded two John Peel sessions,
backed-up ex-Help Yourself songwriter Malcolm Morley on a solo LP and were one
of the first bands to issue a 45 on Stiff Records. With the arrival of
‘Wildman’ and his custom-made parallelogram-shaped mahogany-bodied guitar the
classic version of the Brainiacs was now complete. Richard had added a dazzling
lead break to the jagged ‘Monkeys & Degenerates’ which made it the only
true Brainiac FIVE recording. 
Charlie Taylor:  Bert left and
Richard joined while we were still in Cornwall. This version of the band played
dozens of gigs and became very tight. We had a weekly residency at Jacey’s and
played in pubs and colleges all over Cornwall, and also at well-paying tourist
resort gigs where cover versions were required (“Black Magic Woman” by Fleetwood
Mac, “Cosmic Watch” by The Sadistic Mika Band, “Down Down” by Status Quo, “Rock’n’Roll” by (ahem) Gary Glitter, “Something Else” by Eddie Cochran, “Do Ya” by
the Move, “Hey Joe” etc.). We recorded our LP The World Inside at Roche and
moved up to London to try to get it released by a reasonably sized record
label, but that didn’t work out.
You were active
when psychedelia was really obscure and unpopular. Just in between the end of
Golden Era of Psychedelia and before Paisley Underground and all the Neo-Psych
scene. Where do you think your sound originated?
Charlie Taylor:  From a
combination of listening to the S.F. psychedelic bands of the ‘60s and
absorbing the very laid-back atmosphere of West Cornwall at the time. The
Summer of Love was still continuing down there ten years after it finished
What would you say were some of the influences?
Charlie Taylor: Captain Beefheart, Spirit, MC5, Sun Ra, Quicksilver, Sex
Pistols, Television, CAN, early Blue Oyster Cult, Grateful Dead, Amon Duul II,
Cluster, Love, Family, Henry Cow, Soft Machine, Caravan, Byrds, Fairport
Convention, Traffic, Groundhogs, Hawkwind, Stooges, Little Feat, Tower Of
Power, Miles Davis 1969-1975, Moby Grape, The Move, Pink Fairies, Pretty
Things, Ramones, Status Quo, Velvet Underground, Wire, XTC and more….
How well were you involved with the local scene and what
were some other bands at the time that sounded similar or were part of a
similar scene to you?
Woody: Many local bands were featured at Jacey’s. We
encouraged kids from the local school to form bands, even if they could only
play a couple of numbers. Some of these, like The Vendettas, went on to become
very good punk bands. One of these, Septic and The Sceptics, at some point
changed their name to The Newlyn Male Voice Choir which caused all sorts of
confusion for some of the audience that turned up.
We also got some of the bands that were just playing covers
on the circuit to sort out some more interesting stuff to come and play.  There wasn’t much in the way of psychedelia
from anyone else. The nearest thing to us musically were The Fans and Missing
Chemicals who were from Exeter. They came to Jacey’s and we went up there to do
things with them. Later, Bert formed a band called Lip Service which started
out fairly punky but became more pop-orientated after he left. The audience at
Jacey’s was a good mix of old hippies and young kids which was great. This mix
seems to have gone from gigs a lot now with the audiences really polarized. It
would be nice to be playing to more young people now – I am sure that they
would get it!
What happened next after the EP was out? We know you
recorded another single “Working / Feel” and you used a cover from
legendary Max Ernst, who was part of Zurich’s Dada movement. Why is that?
Charlie Taylor:  We released the “Working/Feel” 45 in January 1980, this time on Roche (as opposed to Roach)
Records. The cover design was borrowed from the 1933 collage ‘Une semaine de
bonté’ (a week of kindness) by Max Ernst, the German Dada-ist, and the image of
the falling (or levitating) woman was used for our early promotional material
and continues to appear on Brainiac posters to this day. There’s no specific
reason – we just liked the surreal feeling of freedom evoked by the image,
which we hoped was reflected in our music.
What would you say was the main concept behind your
Charlie Taylor:  We try to be
uplifting, realistic and intense.
Do you have any crazy stories that happened while playing
Woody: The incident
that I really liked was not connected to The Brainiac 5 but to Jacey’s. I had
booked a band called Edna Paper Bag (a real group of reprobates). They turned
up on stage with their heads in paper bags (Edna paper bag, I know I know).
They also had a big sign saying that they were “The Average Woody
Band.”  When they took the bags off
their heads they had swimming caps on, making themselves look bald, and wire
frame glasses. (I am bald with wire frame glasses). As I looked more I thought
“I have got a coat just like that”. Then it dawned on me they were
all wearing my clothes! They had been to my place and pinched them. The
guitarist was pretending to play this vacuum cleaner thing with strings on it
like a guitar. When he switched it on its motor had been reversed so it blew
not sucked (when it blows is sucks, I am sure I have heard that lyric
somewhere?). Its bag was full of feathers which shot out all over the place. I
got hell from the landlord about the mess. 
What happened in the ’80s?
Charlie Taylor: In 1979 we moved to London and played at venues like The
Rock Garden, The Hope & Anchor, The Moonlight Club, Dingwalls and The
Kensington.  Difficulties getting a
record deal, on-going cash-flow problems and the lack of time and resources to
develop and rehearse our music in London all conspired against us. We gradually
ran out of enthusiasm and sometime towards the end of 1980 we mutually agreed
to end the band and go our separate ways. 
There was “Reptile Woman” single in 1983 and
“Time / Monkeys & Degenerates”, a few years later an album was
released, which was recorded a few years earlier titled “World
Inside”. Why it took so long?
Charlie Taylor:  “Reptile Woman”
wasn’t us – at least I don’t think so! “Time” was an out-take from the World
Inside sessions. “Monkeys & Degenerates” was an early recording with Bert
on vocals. These two tracks were released in 1986 by a German label called
Roadrunner Records.
“World Inside” was recorded at Roche in 1979. It consisted
of many of the tracks we were playing live. Unfortunately we didn’t secure an
acceptable deal for its release at the time. Charlie went on to start the
Reckless Records chain of record shops and when that was doing well decided to
start a record label, also called Reckless Records. The Brainiac 5 LP was a
natural first release in 1988.
The label had some interesting artists like The Bevis
Frond, Black Sun Ensemble etc.
Colin Hill: the Reckless discography consists of 25 albums
by the likes of The Bevis Frond (various LPs and expanded CD re-issues), Mu
(featuring Merrell Fankauser and two ex-members of Beefheart’s Magic Band), The
Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Rustic Hinge & The Provincial Swimmers and The
Soft Machine (‘Live at The Proms, 1970’) alongside contemporary releases by
Henry Kaiser and the acid-fried desert psych of The Black Sun Ensemble.
What can you tell us about your brand new compilation
called “When Silence Was Sound 1977-80”?
Charlie Taylor: It contains almost all of the vinyl we released in the
‘70s plus a couple of live tracks recorded at the White Horse in Launceston
before a typically wild audience. It’s mastered by Tony Poole and sounds better
than the original vinyl!
What are you currently up to and what are some of your
future plans?
Charlie Taylor: Last year version three of the Brainiac 5 featuring
Charlie Taylor (guitar/vocals), Woody (bass), Duncan Kerr (guitar/vocals),
Steve Hudson (drums) released a 10” vinyl called Space Is The Place featuring a
new recording of fan favorite Space Is The Place plus a couple of weird Half
Human Band songs. 
Positive reviews appeared in Shindig! (Kris Needs), The Wire
(Byron Coley) and Holding Together. Duncan replaced Richard Wildman Booth, with
whom he played in the legendary long lost Plummet Airlines. Steve left shortly
after and was replaced by Nick Onley (sax/flute/vocals) and Wayne Worrell
(drums/vocals).  This year and last the
Brainiacs have played a number of London shows, including The Doghouse, The
Bull & Gate, Dublin Castle, The Betsey Trotwood, The Hideaway and The
Silver Bullet, plus a couple of short Cornish tours taking in Launceston, Truro
and Penzance. We’ve been recording again and have almost completed a new LP for
autumn release, with a very different sound, more in the direction of Traffic
and Family.
Richard Booth has just released, Spill The Moon, a CD of new
material with the aptly named Richard Booth Trio. It’s a semi-acoustic mix of
atmospheric folk-rock, combining strong emotive songs with textured
instrumentals and sparkling solos.
Thank you very much for taking your time. Would you like
to share anything else with Psychedelic Baby’s readers?

Charlie Taylor: Thanks to Colin Hill for the use of parts of his essay
from When Silence Was Sound, and to Psychedelic Baby for asking the questions.
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2014
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2014
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