You never could know what to expect from a Brain Tumors show. Sure, you'd hear some hardcore, but would it be a bunch of Weezer covers played over and over in the basement of the VFW? Or would it simply be a display of violence and self-destruction? Would the notorious Drew Ailes — also a regular City Pages contributor — wind up covered in blood or with a dislocated jaw? Brothers and sisters, we gather today to remember the dearly departed band that redefined the local underground forever, whether they intended to or not.
I always thought of Brain Tumors shows as more of an "experience." This past weekend was nothing less — a raucous barrage of screaming combined with Ailes' stand-up comedy and some serious audio problems that nearly prompted bassist Joel Gomez to smash his instrument several songs into their set. Thankfully, guitarist Pat Dillon stepped in and kept this from happening. Ailes did wind up with a couple of drumsticks up his nose, one of which he threw into the audience and hit me directly in the arm, leaving a purple welt. It was destiny, I suppose. The show was so important, in fact, that Ailes missed the Gathering of the Juggalos for it.
It was also local punk outfit Wild Child's last show — as Wild Child. “I don't want to do this for anybody else,” declares vocalist Antoine. “We did it for us. It was for us. It helps us deal with life and the anxiety of walking outside every day into the unknown. What is Wild Child will be something else."
Back to Brain Tumors. The group played their first show back in the fall of 2010 at the Beat Coffeehouse. “It was like the worst sounding place that I have ever been into,” laments Ailes over the phone the day after their last performance this weekend. “It was just so painful.” He calls me to talk about the band's breakup, then has to hang up about two minutes later to chug ginger ale (he ate too many hotdogs at Rudolph's earlier that day, he informs me).
I can relate to this feeling, digestively speaking. The initial plan was for Ailes, Gomez, Dillon and I to all meet for hotdogs at Rudolph's the day after Saturday's final show. However, Ailes left immediately upon my arrival to bring friends from a touring band to the airport.
At Rudolph's, I spoke with Gomez and Dillon about the beginnings of Brain Tumors. “I have a really fucked up brain, like a physiologically fucked up brain, so getting brain tumors and losing what simple grasp I have on my mental capacity is about the scariest thing in the world,” Gomez says. “So what do you name a punk band after? The thing you're most afraid of.” A mathematician studying for his PhD at the University of Minnesota, one could easily fathom why a brain tumor would be such a big fear for a guy like Gomez. “Yeah, trying to explain that name to my grandparents is one of the hardest things I've ever done,” he admits.
Over the phone later, Ailes tries to convince me he came up with the name. “I could almost swear I came up with the name Brain Tumors because I feel like if anyone else said it I would have been like, 'No, that sounds like a grindcore band,' and shut it down,” he says. At the time Ailes felt there were too many bands with the word “teenage” in their names to hold onto their original band name: Teenage Impotents (think Teenage Moods, Frozen Teens, etc.).
Ailes and Gomez initially met years ago while living in Raleigh, North Carolina. Finding themselves at a party that neither actually wanted to be at, they wound up sitting around and discovering the common bonds as punks and metalheads, discussing Slayer, thrash metal, and “shit like that,” Ailes says.
“There were all these house parties and shit, shows in Raleigh, and I went to those by myself because I didn't have any friends and I didn't know how to talk to people that I didn't know at all,” he continues. “I had to carve myself a little piece of the action, so I kind of stayed in the corners and looked for Joel here and there to talk to.”
After ending the relationship that had spurned his move to Raleigh, Ailes traveled for a while with a heavy metal band before finding himself back in Minneapolis. “When I moved back to Minneapolis, Joel had moved here to study math, and we reconnected and we spent probably two or three years just staying awake and drinking and eating pizza, talking about starting a band,” he recalls. There was a lot of talking, but it was Dillon who was the actual catalyst. The two were friends from back in high school, and reconnected over Facebook when Dillon asked Ailes if he'd be interested in starting a Big Black cover band. “I said sure, but I wanted to cover a Cows song, and he said that he was cool with that,” Ailes says.
Piecing together the history of Brain Tumors is like working on a puzzle that you found in the children's ward of a hospital, where all of the pieces have just been mixed up between boxes. A full 24 hours after my initial series of interviews and digestive torture, I called drummer Dan Johnson. We began our conversation with how he initially found his way into the band.
“In winter of 2009 Drew approached me at a show,” Johnson remembers. “He was like, 'Hey, Dan, you wanna be in a band that sounds like Reagan Youth?' I was really drunk and I was like, 'Yeah, sure man, that sounds like a lot of fun.' Then I didn't really hear anything about it after.”
That's because Tim Java was actually the first drummer of Brain Tumors. Shortly after the band's inception though, he was asked to go on tour with what Ailes describes as a “kind of like pop-punk style metal band.” Apparently Java was in high demand, and that's when Johnson officially stepped in.
“When Pat and I started jamming it was like we automatically clicked,” Johnson says. “It was fucking awesome. And it wasn't even just on a musical level, like, there was definitely chemistry there right away. We ended up getting into these long-winded conversations about life, and it was really cool.”
“I pulled all these fucking dudes out of weird corners of my life,” Ailes tells me. “We all got along right away, because we're all just a bunch of fuckin' goofy idiots. We all just like to sit around and crack jokes and make fun of shit and hate everybody.” And thus, Brain Tumors was born.
Enough about band history though; this is an obituary. Let's get to the fun part: All of the weird shit that happened during their short lifetime, starting with their first tour.
Ahead of their final show, Brain Tumors were crammed into a borrowed 15-passenger van with the band Much Worse and two other friends along for the ride. “I guess in some ways one could say that from the start of that tour it was a train wreck, but imagine if a train wreck was a good thing,” Johnson says. The first bad sign was blowing a tire on their way to Chicago. Then came the second bad sign — Ailes' failed crucifixion.
“I guess this is kind of the first time where I realized that Drew ended up getting hurt a lot while we played,” Johnson says. Apparently they were playing a house show in Chicago and Ailes got shoved into a wall with a nail sticking about three inches straight out of it. “It just fucking stabbed him right in the arm,” Johnson says. “It looked like those dudes that were nailing Jesus' hands to the cross, like that type of nail mark, but on his forearm. It was like they missed when they were trying to crucify him.”
This was also the tour that gifted Ailes with a dislocated jaw in Washington, D.C. Back at Rudolph's, while I'm overdosing on hotdogs and Gomez and Dillon are getting drunker, Dillon admits to his fault in the matter. “I shouldered right into him,” he says. “I think I might have used my guitar ... I don't know. It was in a really small basement, and I was just like losing my shit in the middle of the set.”
Thankfully, Ailes had a good friend in town who also happened to be a doctor, and popped his jaw right back into place. “Drew was really mad at me after that,” Dillon says. “I felt terrible; I had no idea.”
“How did you feel terrible?,” Gomez asks him. “You were passed out on the fucking front porch.”
Admittedly, a lot of what made Brain Tumors so exciting (and terrifying) was Ailes' willingness to completely sacrifice his safety for the sake of hardcore — which is one of the reasons this journey is coming to an end. “I whipped a flower pot once as hard as I could into a crowd of people and it whizzed right by some guy's head and smashed on the wall,” Ailes tells me. “I did that as a reaction because someone punched me in the balls during our set as hard as they could, and I got mad. But if I had hit that person, they could have been dead.”
Ailes seems to have a lot of conflicting feelings over his behavior. “I'm very proud that we did some really horrible, weird shit, and weren't boring,” he says, then immediately follows that statement by declaring how lucky he feels that he didn't cause any permanent damage to himself or anyone else. “I'm not mad that way anymore. I don't need to prove to people how shitty I can be,” he says.
Brain Tumors did exactly what it was supposed to do. The band acted as a vessel for the scene to flow through, despite some of its more violent times. Ailes achieved soapbox status, and Johnson attained the opposite — remaining ever-elusive. They traveled the country, built lasting relationships with similar scenes in cities like Omaha, St. Louis and Kansas City, helped pay for touring bands to make it here to our humble underground venues in Minneapolis, and caused chaos and calamity everywhere they went. And they've inspired a future generation of musicians to take up the cause.
“Wild Child got thrown out of the Triple Rock,” Antoine remembers. “People were throwing pint glasses at us while we were playing and I started throwing them back, and they cut our set off. We opened up for Iceage and Ex-Nuns. I mean, people started throwing glasses at us and yelling at me and I just threw one all the way back to where it knocked down a bunch of bottles at the bar and they cut us off.” Sounds like an Ailes move to me.
This could go on forever, but I'll just end it here with giving Ailes one final opportunity to stand on that soapbox. And trust me, this is the edited version:
“I feel like the only thing that I really want to say is like, art isn't worth shit unless you're sacrificing something for it,” he begins. “I've played multiple shows covered in blood. I've just been really fucked up, and I'm proud that we did something and we didn't fucking half-ass it, and we didn't shy away from it, and we didn't compromise any shit. We did shit exactly the way that we wanted to 99 percent of the time.
“I hate that music is a fucking accessory to everyone in our generation virtually — it's a fucking accessory,” he continues. “It's something to wave over people's heads of how cool you are, or something. It's not because you risked some shit to do it, it's not because you fucking go broke buying it, collecting it, finding stuff, caring about it, helping people, helping bands out, opening up your fucking homes to do it...no, it's just a fucking thing for you to add on your Facebook interest list.”
In true Ailes fashion, he does end with a positive: “Whatever, sorry, I haven't slept for a long time. It's the hotdog talking.”
Oh, Brain Tumors. What a legacy you've left us. Rest in peace, or pieces, or whatever you prefer. Just please don't ever try to convince me again that shotgunning two hotdogs is a good idea.