Brain Dead’s Commitment to Art and Music’s Most Off-Kilter Elements
Brain Dead’s Commitment to Art and Music’s Most Off-Kilter Elements
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date August 22, 2017
At a time where starting a streetwear label seems like you’re screaming into the wind, it takes a truly unique voice in order to stand out from the crowded chorus of side labels, skatewear, and Supreme-inspired brands. Ironically, when it comes to one of the most interesting labels in the streetwear scene, it’s found success by not trying to be a streetwear brand at all.
Founded in 2014, Brain Dead began as a conversation and grew into a collaborative project between Kyle Ng (known for his work behind Farm Tactics, and later, AXS Folk Technology) and Ed Davis (known for Rat Brain and his work with Melbourne’s Doomsday Store). The two met—ironically—via the internet, discovering that they had the same passion for B-movies, underground culture, “and weirdo stuff in general.”. When Ng emailed Davis out of the blue after receiving one of Davis’ Rat Brain tees as a gift, it didn’t take long for the two to click organically. Using that T-shirt as an aesthetic starting line (the T-shirt in question mashed-up the Patagonia logo with Hellraiser’s Pinhead), the foundation of Brain Dead was born. It might surprise many that the majority of the brand’s work has been done almost entirely online, as Ng and Davis contribute to a project and then pass it back and forth between two separate continents (Ng lives in California, while Davis resides in Australia).
A combination platter of pop culture’s darker, disturbing, and trashy elements, Brain Dead channels its vision through a myriad of mediums—while still recognizing that the graphic T-shirt is the ultimate messaging platform. As a garment that’s able to be as affordable as it is wearable, it’s the perfect way to allow for experimentation and discovery. That may sound contradictory for a brand like Brain Dead, which, as Ng explained to Slam Jam Socialism, “is not really a clothing brand.” But the brand's wider aim isn’t to simply provide graphic T-shirts, it’s a chance to expose the things that personally interest Davis and Ng—all in the hopes of sharing those underrepresented subcultures in a way that more closely reflects pre-internet information sharing. The humble T-shirt just happens to be a easy and attainable way to share that message.
Learning from his history creating items for “fashion brands,” Ng went into Brain Dead fed up with the industry’s attachment to seasonal product releases. Instead of feeding into the cycle of hype that naturally emerges around modern labels, Brain Dead has grown organically on its own time—and that’s by design. “Ed Davis and I created [Brain Dead] with the idea that it could be a sandbox where we could create and explore ideas in all facets of culture,” Ng explained to Slam Jam Socialism. “I think the fact that we are not trying to go the conventional fashion route, we can capture the attention of some great retailers and customers.” Unlike Ng’s previous apparel ventures, his focus on personal, cultural vision over the needs of the market are exactly what have made Brain Dead such a cult hit in such a short amount of time. It’s no small feat landing on the shelves of reputable stores like Dover Street Market, Nepenthes New York and Union LA.
As Ng outlined in his Slam Jam Socialism Q&A, “The main problem with most brands is not creating a strong foundation or identity for their brand. You must really look at what you’re trying to create and where it should live. So many brands start up, and they just try to emulate the trend. I think it’s finding a way to incorporate trend into your design, but I don’t think you should let the trend dictate your brand.” He continued, “Brain Dead is more popular because it deals less with fashion and more with lifestyle and culture. It has a strong identity, and I think when you are connected to the culture you always have an upper hand.”
Oh, and before you condemn Davis and Ng for tapping into “subculture” and “the underground” in the same way non-skaters wear Thrasher or supermodels wear Metallica tees, think again. The pair are far more informed and self-aware than many of their contemporaries. Speaking to Highsnobiety, Ng points out, “we grew up being part of the DIY culture. Whether it’s digging for punk and hardcore records, or finding hard to find comics, I always dive as deep as possible into anything I get into. I think a lot of so-called “counter culture inspired brands” are not subversive. Counter culture seems almost as mainstream as Taylor Swift. We find inspiration from places that people won’t expect. But it’s natural to us.”
This blend of individual vision and—quite frankly—personal taste level, reflect a skillset that’s more commonly found among successful DJs. Impressive DJs aren’t just people who play the hits: they’re deep-diving sonic selectors; individuals with an uncanny ability to blend and source sounds to create mixes that don’t just crossfade between songs, but cross between genres. Discussing contemporary streetwear in a 2015 interview, Ng told Highsnobiety “I think most brands in streetwear play it very safe. Most brands are not trying to teach or showcase anything new. I compare it to a DJ. A good DJ is someone who digs for records that no one has ever heard of, yet can control a whole room.
This comparison to a knowledgeable DJ isn’t just a solid analogy on how Brain Dead sources its inspirations—it also serves as a reminder of the brand’s very own record label. Kicking off in mid-2016, Brain Dead Records is simply the embodiment of the brand within a music-centric context. With a roster of releases that spans everything from Stussy Tribe member Michael Kopelman to Thai psychedelic band Khun Narin, fans can rest assured that the record label is still very much “Brain Dead.” Aside from releasing its very own rendition of the low-fi T-shirts in the vein of Brain Dead’s offbeat D.I.Y. style, the label dropped—not digital downloads or CDs—but cassette tapes. Like the rest of Brain Dead’s releases, this choice is hardly coincidental.
The outdated format isn’t just done for cheap, nostalgic irony. Rather, this method of music delivery harkens back to the very foundation of Brain Dead’s core ideology. “Tapes are cheap, accessible, and they are an object that we can combine art and music on. We love the idea that you can’t just jump from track to track on a tape," Davis explained to Hypebeast. “I think people overlook how much a musician puts into a record. It kind of bums us out. I guess tapes help you listen to the whole record and you can appreciate the work each musician puts into their music.” Instead of having another product to shove out into the masses, the hope is that this truly analog form of technology mirrors Brain Dead’s commitment to exposing and sharing its perspective on culture. Brain Dead may have found itself among streetwear's most-talked about labels, but that's purely because it has something interesting to say. If you’re looking for the next "must-have" or "must-listen" thing in fashion or music, Brain Dead isn’t going to be for you; if you’re interested in discovering something different that’s off the beaten path, then you’re in good company.
Even as the partnership between Davis and Ng expands on the “fashion” end—Brain Dead has collaborated with Beams T, Dover Street Market, Suicoke and Vans in the last 12 months—the duo still work on the projects that feel right in line with what’s inspired Brain Dead from the beginning. Still committed to exposing the music world’s abstract, grungy and off-kilter, Brain Dead Records has continued to release “bedroom synth punk” (among other things) with trippy tees to match; fans of the Brain Dead Records sound can also enjoy new episodes of the Brain Dead NTS monthly radio show, exposing listeners to “ruminations in gutter punk, old psych, experimental noise and all other records with attitude.” Music aside, Davis and Ng have also dropped a punk-inspired zine under the moniker ERASE PROJECTS, which hit select retail locations and the LA ART BOOK FAIR this spring.
These things all go to show that, no matter how much hype may surround the brand thanks to its critical co-signs and cool collections of gear, Brain Dead is still committed to its unofficial mission statement: make things that organically appeal to the genuinely offbeat and underexposed facets of music and art. If anything, that’s what’s helped the brand stand out among both contemporary streetwear brands and a fashion-focused society that thrives on a shallow definition of counterculture. “Our approach is just to make the stuff we want,” Ng explained to Slam Jam Socialism. “If you get to caught up on ‘hype’ or what the Internet is saying is ‘cool’ you will get stuck in the vortex! All the trends on the Internet come and go, but the brands that believe in what they do and organically evolve will stay.”