Brain F≠: Storm Rolling In
By Jordan Lawrence
Charlotte punk outfit Brain F≠ tightens its focus and upgrades its hooks to create a roaring debut LP
If you were looking for a metaphor to describe the driving garage-punk of Charlotte’s Brain F≠, a tornado would be a fine place to start. Nick Goode’s cyclonic riffs, Eddie Schneider’s kinetic bass lines and Bobby Michaud’s bruisingly physical drumming combine into a blur of dirty, damaging rock. Goode and singer Elise Anderson circle each other with an array of vocal hooks and hard-hitting lines that add irresistible intensity, resulting in a gusty — but also catchy — blur that you can’t escape.
It’s fitting, then, that an actual tornado contributed to the sound of Sleep Rough, the band’s exciting debut LP. Late on the afternoon of April 16, as Goode and Anderson laid down the devilish call-and-response vocals for the herky-jerky gem “Hand in a Jar,” a very rare yet very destructive tornado tore by their South Raleigh recording spot. It barely missed them and knocked over a 60-foot oak tree, which fell in the opposite direction of the house. Their headphones shielded them from the roar, but it’s clearly audible in the final mix. It provides additional and appropriately rough accompaniment to Goode’s grinding distortion, while bolstering the song’s ruthless, jeering barbs with a jagged, stormy edge.
Naturally, the band decided to incorporate the tornado’s roar as it was; Brain F≠ see their records as documents of the moment of creation, and refuse to polish the rough patches with production tricks or excessive overdubs. Maintaining the tornado’s presence fit right in with that aesthetic.
“The approach was — and I was really adamant about this — let’s not polish it at all,” Goode says. “This is how we sound. This is a document of where we’re at right now. It’s like when you get a bad tattoo to remember something that happened. It’s a sign of this time. You still like it, and you can remember it, and it totally brings you back so hard, too.”
A few years ago, you could find Goode riding up and down I-85 and I-40 several times a month to catch punk shows in Raleigh. Charlotte wasn’t exactly a punk rock hotbed, he and his bandmates explain, and tends to ignore bands on the fringes. Press outlets seem largely dismissive or oblivious to outsider talent, and most venues seem equally reticent to book it. This has forced punk bands to survive underground, largely at house shows. That’s actually turned out to be a healthy development for the scene and its bands. In the last couple of years, those shows, held mostly in the dirty basement of West Charlotte’s Sewercide Mansion, or at Lunchbox Records in Plaza-Midwood, have given birth to a ferocious front of loud bands: The brilliantly blackened Young and in the Way, the perverse, blues-infused Paint Fumes and another of Goode’s bands, the endlessly brutal Joint Damage, being just three examples.
Of this scene, Brain F≠ are the best and most connected. Goode, in addition to leading Joint Damage, plays in the reactivated Logic Problem, a precise, studied punk band that’s been around since 2008. Schneider drums in Yardwork, a pop-rock band filled with former and current punk rockers whose signature is attacking that bright style with hardcore intensity. Michaud manned the kit for short-lived noise-rock powerhouse Grids and currently plays with Raleigh’s Double Negative. Anderson contributed vocals on a new platter from garage-pop act Coma League. It’s an impressive resume, which – paired with the band’s unstoppable sound – has made them de facto leaders for Charlotte’s burgeoning punk scene, and worthy ambassadors beyond it.
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Today, Brain F≠ sits crammed into a small booth at Growlers Pourhouse, a fancy, wood-and-stone bedecked bar in Charlotte’s North Davidson art district. Its specialty is limited-quantity craft beer, but it offsets these pricey offerings with a $2 PBR special. It’s a refreshing balance, one mirrored in Brain F≠’s music. Razor-sharp hooks merge with the heft of dense, distorted rock, resulting in a sound that’s as catchy as it is crushing.
Goode is ostensibly the band’s leader. His riffs lead the charge in the band’s instrumental dynamo. He also helps craft the vocal parts with Anderson. But he’s not in control right now. As he speaks, he sips frugally from his pint. He’s precise, but quiet, and his bandmates make it hard for him to express his ideas succinctly. They latch onto the ends — and middles — of his sentences, using them as stepping stones to illuminate their own thoughts on the band. Their recollections reveal themselves in tumbles; members interrupt each other to pile on their neighbors’ points.
Though soft-spoken, Goode pairs his words with a warm, charming look, his blue eyes shining amidst his scruffy, sandy-blonde hair and beard. Elise jumps past his points with quick, high-pitched rants that are every bit as piercing as her green eyes. She wins the “Best Dressed” award, too, her tailored V-neck pairing nicely with jean shorts and stylish flats. Schneider, too, manages to say his piece, barreling through in husky outbursts. Michaud, while a racket behind the kit, is the quiet one here, sitting back and listening, occasionally chipping in with a sniping joke or quick summation of what’s been said. Eventually someone derails the conversation with an aside, and the group moves on pell-mell to a different subject.
“We all talk a lot and interrupt each other and make jokes on top of each other’s jokes,” Anderson says, poking fun at the way they continually talk over each other. “Can you put lines of text over lines of text? I think that’s the best way to write it.”
Goode places the band’s inception at the house he shared with Michaud and Anderson in 2009. Logic Problem was nearing hiatus; Grids was as well, so Goode and Michaud began experimenting together. They reached out to Schneider when they heard he also played bass. The trio flirted with the idea of having Yardwork’s other drummer, Taylor Knox, sing for them, but chose Anderson. “Elise was the only one that showed up to practice,” Goode laughs.
They tire of the origin story quickly, preferring to riff on the laborious process that led to their name.
“We spent more time thinking up band names than writing songs, for the first couple practices at least,” Anderson says, shaking her head playfully.
They list the once-prospective monikers, admiring them like items from a scrap book. Schneider takes the roll of historian, recalling names such as Scab Members, Chinese or Whatever, and Stink Lines. He later recalls the band seriously considering Ragin’ Uptown, the name of a Queen City party bus. As he recounts the ideas, his bandmates alternately jeer and compliment their own creativity. A couple of years ago this was a serious and troublesome debate for a new band. Now, it’s fodder for a tight crew — tighter now, thanks to the beer — to engage in jovial self-mockery. Eventually, they settled on Brain F≠lannel, and released a five-song demo cassette before adopting the official shorthand.
Like the tumult of their overlapping discussions, the instrumentalists assert their own identities and styles, but still leave room for the other players to make their mark. Michaud pummels his kit with unflinching forcefulness, recalling the rough-shod attack he displayed in Grids. Schneider injects extra propulsion on bass, replicating the spark plug role he plays in Yardwork’s frenetic assault. Goode fires off guitar lines with so much vigor that he constantly seems ready to veer out of control. Amazingly, they’re able to wrap these approaches into a seamless force that leaves just enough room for Anderson’s semi-sweet sneer. The results are structurally similar to the Minutemen’s quick romps and rocket along in the way of Hüsker Dü’s loudest moments, but Brain F≠ are harder and hookier than either of those references suggest.
“You can know what my voice sounds like, or know what Bobby’s drumming style is, but you don’t really know what they’re going to bring to the table until you start doing it,” Anderson says. “The more time we’ve spent together, and the more shows that we’ve played and the more that we’ve actually worked on writing, it’s changed.”
And so it has. “Restraining Order,” the first song the band ever wrote, is a far cry from the slick salvo that appears on Sleep Rough. The song, released on a 2010 7-inch of the same name, showcases a rougher, less synchronized outfit than the one Brain F≠ has become. It rides a pulsing, near-surf-rock combo of guitar and bass, and Michaud’s drumming is simplistic until the choruses, when he lets loose in captivating tantrums that stray too far from the song’s driving core. Goode sings the verses largely on his own, wrapping his dry bark around a crass, creepy tale of a stalker that just can’t keep his distance. Anderson joins him during the song’s earworm chorus, accentuating the hook with her sweeter tones.
“Obviously there was a foundation there,” Schneider says. “Early on, even when it was just three of us, it was kind of different. What it was going to go to was there. We talked about it too. That one song is where it finally came together.”
The distance between that first step and Sleep Rough’s bold leap forward is astonishing. On the LP, Brain F≠’s instrumental core operates as an impregnable unit. They move with unstoppable momentum, executing every maneuver with precision, never letting any show of individual prowess take away from the band’s collective energy. They relent to a cutting guitar slash here or a few rhythmic body blows there, but they manage these flare-ups skillfully, preventing them from disturbing the band’s steadily roaring blaze.
As good as Sleep Rough’s instrumentals are, it’s the vocal arrangements that will really turn heads. For the first time, Goode and Anderson sat down and wrote out their vocal melodies before recording. The effort results in highly intricate parts that pile hooks on top of hooks, escalating momentum to the point of near whiplash.
“It’s a lot more fun to try to weave a melody in between music that you think is badass than hearing the melody before you ever even finish the song,” Anderson says. “It’s challenging sometimes to write. We get together, and sometimes we’ll write immediately, and sometimes we’ll sit there for hours and be like, ‘Uhhhh, maybe . . . ,’ you know? It’s not easy.”
Despite their considerable nuance, Brain F≠ is — adamantly — still a punk band. Their songs take cheap, politically incorrect shots at society. The searing one-minute romp “Lie About Diet” takes aim at America’s nutrition woes with zingers like, “All we eat is chicken shit/ Kitchen’s full of frozen dishes/ Boxes full of freezer meat.” They’ve turned the “F” in their name into a readily tagged symbol, printing it onto stickers that often wind up replacing “f”s on other stickers on the walls of clubs they play. When LP sleeves didn’t arrive in time for them to hit the road in July, they put together a “Tour Edition” of Sleep Rough, spray painting a stencil of their symbol onto leftover covers from labelmate Deep Sleep’s recent Turn Me Off.
This punk identity was clear during a recent performance at Raleigh’s Berkeley Café. Brain F≠ found themselves wedged in the middle of a hardcore bill, ranging from the devastating hardcore of Stripmines only as far as the Black Flag-aping tricks of Rochester’s Rational Animals.
“We play like 80 percent of our shows with garage bands, maybe 70 percent,” Goode says. “But they have different motives. We’re not going to try to make our band sound like anything. Our band is what it is, and you can only put a label on it as to how you operate. We totally operate as a punk band.”
The young punks in Raleigh didn’t quite know what to make of Brain F≠’s hook-driven attack. A few started to mosh, but their attempts sputtered quickly. Far from letting the crowd’s confusion break their stride, Brain F≠ turned it to their advantage. They flew headlong through a quick, relentless set that never took longer than a breath between songs. In doing so, the band kept the crowd off balance, screwing with their heads to impress their sound upon them.
Brain F≠’s members are so sure of their band, and what it aims to be, that they feel it can survive the shakeups that will hit the band in the coming months. After a pair of September performances during Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival, the band will enter a period of hiatus. Anderson is moving to New York to start a new job. Michaud is contemplating a move later in the year, too, most likely to Raleigh. Despite the impending difficulties, they are relaxed about the future. They’ve begun writing songs for a new LP, and they’re planning a tour for later in the fall. They’re convinced that their bond and belief in the music are too strong for any distance to split up.
“I don’t think any of us have any desire to stop doing what we’re doing, but I think the mindset is that we’re going to do what we need to do to pay our bills and do what we want to do,” Anderson says. “But I mean, this morning I scheduled my first visit back [to Charlotte] for November. Everyone’s going to do their thing, and I don’t think the band needs to be an obstruction to the other things going on in our lives because it’s not a bad thing, and it never will be, and it never should be.”
For now, it appears Brain F≠’s raging, tornadic sound is as irresistible for its members as it should be for its listeners. Like any storm system, it’s inevitable that they will dissipate and break up at some point. But even if they drift apart, be it a year from now or 10, they’ll have left an indelible mark on the region, reigniting Charlotte’s punk scene and giving it one of its best records in the process. This storm, it turns out, is only getting started.