Intelligence Interview Brain Dead
Brain Dead, the brainchild brought to life by Ed Davis and Kyle Ng, is a multifaceted brand that led to the creation of a creative agency and record label. Despite being separated by seas, an ocean and a seventeen-hour time difference, the two are able to tune into the same wavelength to create some of the most intriguing graphics of recent memory. Being somewhat of an odd couple, they have made their childhood dreams come true by pursuing current passions and ruminating over similar eclectic interests.
Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Ed Davis is a graphic designer known prior for his hand in the initial stages of Doomsday Store (Melbourne) and now defunct projects Heavy Mental Blog, Heavy Time zine, and Rat Brain. A California native, Kyle Ng moved from San Francisco to his current base of operations in Los Angeles with experience in the industry operating his personal brands AXS Folk Technology and Farm Tactics, while freelance consulting for the likes of Polar and Urban Outfitters. The dynamic duo first met through the internet and work consistently through online collaboration, yet they promote an almost anti-internet perspective from growing up and operating through pre-and-post internet eras. We spoke to Ed and Kyle at length through an online conference on the business of balancing between obscurity and visibility.
When did you guys first come in contact?
Ed: My background is in design, but I came a little late to this stuff I guess, even though I’ve been into it for a while. I actually met Kyle on the internet, he just sent me an email out of the blue.
Kyle: At the time, I had a brand called AXS Folk Technology and that was my main focus, but I was also doing a lot of freelance special project direction for a lot of companies. I was given a T-shirt as a present and it was one of Ed’s Rat Brain Tees; the T-shirt said Patagonia but it also had the Hellraiser (Pinhead) on it. It was a weird brand that you could only buy on a Flickr or something stupid, but I was like, “That’s cool, I’m down.” I got his email and I hit him up right away, but he was super hesitant. I was like, “Yo, I need to do this project.” He saw my email and he knew the brand (AXS) and my other brands. Knowing Ed being a super cool dude, he was finally like, “Let’s do a brand and let’s have other people involved,” and that was kind of the weird spawn.
E: We’re as similar as we are different — it's kind of like Master Blaster from Mad Max 2 or was it Mad Max 3? I remember Kyle hit me up and he kept emailing me wanting to Skype with me and I was like, “Fuck no I don’t want to Skype with you, I don’t even know who you are.” I think I pretended that my Skype was broken, or the phone was broken for ages because I was just sussing him out. I don’t really like talking to people that much, but now I talk to him everyday so we worked through that. The Rat Brain Tees came from my frustration of being in Melbourne and working in a design studio that was pretty shit, and working with lots of clients that were very uninspired. I was just getting into Instagram, I thought maybe I could pre-sell some t-shirts and it would pay for itself. I never had any money to start a brand, so the concept of getting the money before I made anything was pretty sweet. So I tried it and it worked enough to make those Tees, I actually haven’t made any Rat Brain Tees since.
How long ago was this?
E: Not that long ago, how long has Brain Dead been around for? Three years?
K: Yeah two and a half. It was pretty quick — we just clicked. It was organic and just happened. We didn’t even realize we had the same interests, he knew I made clothing and made graphics; but we never had talks about what we were interested in, we just kind of knew.
E: A real slow reveal.
It’s an interesting time right now with a fresh crop of new graphic T-shirt brands, some drawing on fairly obvious pop culture references and others from subcultural aesthetics, but you clearly bonded over much more eclectic ideas. For example, there’s a whole section of just T-shirts at Dover Street Market. Even high fashion looks to that aesthetic and you guys are a big part of that. What is your background in graphic tees?
E: I’ve always been obsessed with T-shirts. That comes from music I think — band Tees and also comic book Tees. Back in the early '90s I used to love comic companies like Dark Horse, and even Marvel was putting out some sick T-shirts; because I’m a comic freak I’m into that, and also music Tees, metal Tees. I used to love those stores that were just band Tees. I still love that.
K: That’s probably my first interest. I’m a huge vintage head, so weird movies like Total Recall, Aliens, all those things and comic book Tee’s; Spawn, Marvel Tees, Batman. That was the big thing that Ed and I made the connection on. I grew up being into hardcore music, but at the end of the day it was always about finding something new. It’s about digging. That’s that comic book nerd mentality, like a DJ mentality, you’re never happy with just being super into The Clash. Fuck that, I never listened to The Clash growing up. I liked the bands around me. I think the thing that we both love is community and bringing people in. “Let’s work with this guy, let’s work with that guy.” Maybe we’re not making any money but the exciting part about Brain Dead is that we get to work with people we love and admire, and at the same time, the visual language is not just that. It’s not just about the people we love but also — not trying to be super obscure — it’s what we’re interested in. We’re into finding something that references what we’re really into; I wear a PayPal hat all the time because I love PayPal. I think when graphics turn into a fashion item, it becomes something to do with fitting in. We try and find something that gets people excited because they don’t see it everyday. If Ed’s wearing an Alien T-shirt, that’s sick because people are not seeking out Alien T-shirts.
The cool thing about a lot of those items, like Tees and pins, were that they were quite ephemeral, maybe a promo item or a souvenir from a concert. It wasn’t a seasonal thing, a Spring/Summer fashion item that sat on shelves for six months before the sales.
E: Have you noticed the trend where people like to now put the collection date and year on the T-shirts they’re making?
K: When I was doing more of the AXS stuff, I had to go to the trade shows — Capsule or wherever — travelling around trying to sell $300 pants. I realized then the culture of fashion wasn’t interesting to me. It’s a bunch of guys being like, “I have the most expensive shit.” I don’t even have a car, I don’t drive and neither does Ed. We’re not interested in luxury. I like nice designs, nice things, but at the end of the day, we wanted to make a brand that was merchandise for our culture that we love. A pin is something that anyone could have, a T-shirt is something that represents something, and the apparel that we make just represents something that we want to see. We’re not trying to make a full collection to show that we can be fashion designers; it’s just things that we want to see in reality. The problem in the fashion world is that I don’t know what the end goal is.
E: Also the pressure to make a whole collection 2-3 times a year, that sounds like it would get really boring really quickly.
It’s almost a redundant model. Aside from still being seasonal, it’s a globalized business. It seems clever that you guys can have a drop of items whenever they are ready to go.
E: Theoretically because we have to fit in with stores’ timelines, we do have to have two major drops a year.
K: The Khun Narin thing: we just made that, dropped it online and it sold out, but that’s a thing that doesn’t really fit any season. This current time is so great because people are down to support brands that are just down to support their ideas. It’s sale season and we’re about to drop Hawaiian shirts and people are dropping jackets because of the calendar, but it’s hot here! The last thing I want to do is buy some crazy mountain parka; I want to buy a Hawaiian shirt. Luckily, I think starting off with good graphic language is very helpful for that; people can support us by buying hats and Tees. But with cut and sew, how malleable can you make this stuff? The great thing is we’re not making things overseas, we’re making it all in the States: I can make 100 pieces at any moment, it doesn’t have to be a lot, and we can do it whenever we want.
E: We have control over the numbers, which is good. We want to keep it small. As much as we want it to be successful, for the sake of communication and community we don’t want it to be anything other than what it is. It’s a collaboration between the two of us and our growing network of friends.
It works because when you do an exclusive design or product — like you’ve done with Union Los Angeles, Nepenthes or Kinfolk — you can make something that relates to that brand, almost a personalized item for that store.
K: Well I think that’s the future of retail and that doesn’t just mean online. What makes a store experience different nowadays? People say, “Where do you want to go shop?” I’ll go to this shop, “What do they carry?” They carry Our Legacy, Norse Projects — you know which brands it’s going to stock to be that #niceshop. But us sitting next to brands that we respect, does that tell a story? I don’t think so — that’s fashion. My thing is if we’re mostly selling online, we want to reach our audience and if someone is going to have this physical experience, they should be able to get something unique. What used to be great back in the day was you went to Japan or London or Union, it was all about the experience, it was the only place you were gonna get this thing. I think that’s becoming less and less due to the internet. So when we talk to Union, Kinfolk or Nepenthes, we want to make something that feels different and you have to go there to grab that in person.
E: I kind of miss the old days before the Internet, but at the same time, because I was in Australia, I never got anything. I do miss knowing that there’s a small amount of that something in the world that I can’t have, that’s unattainable for me. Supreme was a perfect example of that, back when you couldn’t get it unless a friend was going to New York and you’d say, “Get me a size large in anything” and I think I got some weird lemon yellow tee. Now on the Internet you have bots and people buying shit to resell it, it’s bizarre. All of that stuff doesn’t have romance to it. People just buy stuff because they can.
K: The resale market is so strange because kids are standing in line for hours and hours, and if you look at the hourly wage, you’re making like $10 profit. For us, when we think about this stuff like the tapes, it’s interesting because not everyone can have a player for this format. That creates the romance of you then buying a tape player to try and play this. But now it’s just all MP3s, because what’s the point of formats now? What’s the point in having something physical? The thing is when you DJ or listen to it, it’s the process of playing that music. When Ed came here last year, we went to comic book shops and asked the guys what we should get into and we got this comic book Copra. Just to get physical copies to Australia would cost hundreds of dollars, one issue works out to be $100. But that trip was great because you pick up this comic book and it’s amazing; you got this on your travels and it means something.
E: It’s the accumulative life: you accumulate all this stuff, but what does any of it mean to all these people? How many things with a box logo do you want in your house and what does it mean? People don’t know real curiosity any more.
K: The thing with all this stuff is that street wear became about fitting in rather than being different. The way it's been translated through Tumblr, Instagram and blogs is that it’s reaching out to millions of people and telling them how to live their life. It’s almost like the '50s again — get a car, get a family...
E: It’s so true, even the insides of people's houses...
K: You have an Eames chair, you have a Supreme Kate Moss poster, decks on the wall and that’s your art collection. I love all that stuff; I love Eames and I love Supreme but it's crazy how to a T everyone is. When Ed comes over to my house it’s a mess, but that’s what we love. At the time Supreme and all these brands represented something different, an alternative to the world. But now it’s about how do you fit into this mold that is the “cool guy."
At this point there is a lot of guys like Fergus Purcell or Peter Sutherland that come from Punk and DIY and have been true to that for a long time; mainstream brands want that, is it a credibility thing or just an aesthetic to them?
E: I don’t think there’s that many people with the culturally visual dialogue that can make graphics at the moment. There are a lot of graphic designers in the world but there’s not many people doing it to a certain level and, at any rate, Ferg is the best. He’s pure and nobody knows what he does; he’s doing so many things that nobody knows about, and it’s brilliant. There are a lot of people out there starting brands but the graphics are just copied off other stuff without referencing it from its original source or remaking it.
K: A lot of it too is brand building, like what is a brand nowadays. What was interesting about the T-shirt thing with Ed is that originally I was asked to do a curated shop for Capsule tradeshow. I took things like African barbershop paintings, weird Peter Shire ceramics, iKO iKO furniture and T-shirts. People like African Apparel and all of these things that I got really excited about because all of these things were about the same idea — real subcultures. This was three years ago too, when T-shirts weren’t that popular, even Jeremy Dean with Black Flag — he was just making these Tee’s and giving them out to people. It’s so hard to think about that now because it’s so blown out, the dude’s the art director for Anthropologie. That’s just his escape out of it and he’s really into hardcore music.
E: The graphic tee is one of the greatest outlets you can have: it’s pretty much just a walking poster and you can put whatever you want on it. That’s why I made those Rat Brain T-shirts, because I didn’t have a Hellraiser T-shirt and I wanted one. So I mashed all this shit up into a weird hybrid one, just for me. That’s where the best stuff comes from, when you make stuff for yourself and it attracts people that are on the same wavelength as you. That’s how it was when you were wearing a band tee; if I was wearing a Mexican death metal band tee and if someone else clocks in, you’re part of the same club. But now you’ve got a Fear of God T-shirt on for all I know.
K: It's funny because the Nepenthes thing came from the Capsule tradeshow. They saw the African movie poster or the barber shop posters and I would never think Nepenthes would ever be into Brain Dead, but they understood it and said, “Let's do something.” If it was just Black Flag or Nirvana, they wouldn’t care, that’s not their vibe. Ricky Swallow, a fellow Aussie we’re both huge fans of — I never thought we would do something with him because his whole vibe was so different from ours. But when we make something, we try to reach an audience like him first because we have more stuff in common with him than the average street wear kid, but it’s cool that they’re also into it. The graphics that Ed does reaches not only the kids, but a really sophisticated artist or a musician. The things we try to do with the brand are really a balancing act, not just trying to be pretentious or obscure. We want to do things that are exciting to us, that are exotic for us — it’s a challenge. How do we make records? How do we do books? What would we want to see from a brand? Like having an African movie guy paint our brand a poster to put on a T-shirt.
E: That’s a great story for a t-shirt because I wanted another Hellraiser T-shirt, so we described the film Hellraiser to the artist without showing him any pictures and he painted it just from a description. It’s more of a conceptual piece.
K: But then we can be doing the thing with Ricky Swallow or Kinfolk, it’s so weird. That’s what we like about it; it’s a really weird flip. Not fitting in and not being defined by the typical obvious pocket holes we’re supposed to fit in.
E: We’re not trying to fit in, but we’re not not trying to fit in. We’re not trying to be obscure but we’re just being true to ourselves.
K: Honestly we’re just nerds, we’re just two fucking nerds. We like the same shit and we just want to release things, so all the money we make goes back into making things for other people. If you’re a musician we want to make your record because we love what you’re doing, that’s where the real money goes. The financial gain is really our happiness. We are also a design studio, so we have a lot of freelance work, which is really fun and we get the same amount of boner points for doing that work.
E: We had to set up the agency because we realized pretty quickly there was too much stuff we wanted to do for Brain Dead. We had to make money somehow or all of the money is going to go straight back into the brand. Every second day there’s an idea like, “Let’s make a beach towel with Peter Sutherland.” It’s relentless how the ideas keep coming so we made the agency, so we could make some money, so we can pay rent, so we can keep making bullshit stuff. It’s like we stole our parent’s credit card, two kids on a joyride.
K: We did Danny Brown’s record cover, which is coming out, and working with Warp (Records) is really cool.
E: Warp Records! That’s like a dream come true anyway and that came because they like Brain Dead so that kind of makes everything all right.
The (Brain Dead) record label is really fun because we’ve both always wanted to have a record label and we’ve got someone who pretty much just works on that full time with us because it's gonna be a proper thing. Our first 12” is going to be coming out and the calendar is set for that kind of stuff. Brain Dead records is now almost parallel to the label in a way, it has its own trajectory.
K: When we decided to do the mixes it was like, “Let’s get something out real quick, let’s work with our favourite DJ’s.” Some of them were Ed’s friends, some were mine and others were mutual, and that’s kind of like the brand, right? Some of the stuff we’ve done with Jen Shear, that’s Ed’s person, and they released a zine. Thom Stevenson who’s done a lot of stuff for us, that’s a guy I found online. We trust each other and that’s what’s cool, Ed has friends who do electronic music and we hit up another guy and he’s doing a lo-fi rock project; some noise band from Japan that we’re releasing right away. I like things like the old school label Celluloid which had hip hop, post punk, and reggae — the vibe was sick— or like 4AD, when you see that label you just sign off on it.
E: We’re not a niche, we’re not set on one thing; if you looked at either of our record collections, we’re not specific to one genre. So why would we start a label that’s trying to be strictly techno or reggae? We can put out a death metal record or a dub album.
Celluloid Records is a great example of a label bringing together eclectic music with a great art direction. They put out both Futura 2000’s artwork and the 12” of him rapping.
K: Think about hip-hop back then; that Futura song was the most subversive at the time. The punk and hip hop thing made total sense, but was so different. Kids now are wearing punk T-shirts but trying to sell you a mainstream sound.
E: The Justin Bieber metal tour merch — what does that mean? Anthropologically in the future, what does that mean?!
K: That’s what’s so great about Danny Brown, when I met with him in L.A and he tells me the record is inspired by (The) Atrocity Exhibition — I think it was published by ReSearch, it’s weird. It’s a weird anarchist post-apocalyptical-economical downfall industrial weirdo book. He brought that up and immediately he was the man, he clearly does his research. His whole thing was, “People party to my music, but at the end of the day I’m a freak because I’m talking about drugs and my pain but people are dancing; which is why it's called The Atrocity Exhibition.” That’s what’s so cool about him: he gets it. That’s what all this stuff was. The Sex Pistols did their thing, or Public Image (Ltd.) especially the idea that the public image was the thing you saw — was that good or was that bad? Or The KLF, it had a pop sensibility but at the end of the day it was pretty fucked. Bieber doesn’t have that, he’s not bringing the underground to the masses, he’s using the most surface shit ever.
I assume it’s probably just his stylist.
E: It’s the (Jerry) Lorenzo effect I’m telling you!
K: Hey! Fuck, Lorenzo is a smart businessman!
E: If Bieber came to me and said he wanted the Brain Dead effect, I’d say show me the chequebook, let's do it.
Story from issue 03 of Intelligence magazine.
Foreword: Jefford Lam
Interview: Callum Vass
Photographer: Ryan Cookson