How Brain Dead has built its brand on a deep love for punk and hardcore
Brain Dead is for the community more than anything else. Not only is the Los Angeles-based clothing and lifestyle brand made up of several diverse designers and progressive thinkers from the worlds of fashion and beyond, they also remain fully engaged with the creatives who surround them on the ground level. In fact, a community-driven ethos is part of their DNA.
The brand's two key players, co-founder and creative director Kyle Ng and events manager/talent buyer Madison Woodward, have been bringing people together for years across a multitude of artistic endeavors. Particularly, Ng and Woodward share a love of music — especially a deep appreciation for hardcore and punk culture, which is front and center in many of the brand’s garments and events they host, whether it's live shows or film screenings at their very own movie theater Brain Dead Studios.
Since the brand launched in 2014, Brain Dead has found a unique way to collaborate with artists across all genres, ranging from apparel lines inspired by legacy acts such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Morbid Angel, and Green Day to some of the best of the independent circuit with artists like Soccer Mommy and Touché Amoré. In addition to working with major names, the brand has also made sure to use its platform to promote the road dogs in the punk and hardcore world, working with everyone from Gulch and Anxious to Sunami and Gatecreeper. Last year, the brand even further immersed itself in the hardcore scene by sponsoring Sound And Fury Festival (which Woodward is one of the main organizers of) and setting up a special pop-up store where attendees could purchase exclusive merchandise.
No matter the amount of mainstream success that comes their way, it seems as though Brain Dead will never forget its roots. We caught up with Ng and Woodward to discuss Brain Dead’s movement to highlight their eclectic music tastes and bring the community together in meaningful ways.
[Green Day merch / Courtesy of Brain Dead]
What role does music play in the mission and ethos behind Brain Dead?
Kyle Ng: Music was the biggest touchstone for all of my style growing up. I grew up in the Bay Area and spent a lot of time at [the legendary music venue] 924 Gilman Street and different punk and hardcore shows, so it was really important to keep that DNA within the stuff that we curate. When it comes to the music programming and who we collaborate with, it's just a massive chunk of what Brain Dead is.
Touching on your roots in hardcore music, the genre is having quite a resurgence as of late. What do you make of the state of hardcore in 2023?
Ng: I think the resurgence of hardcore is a rebellion [more than anything] against the Spotify algorithm side of music. I also think people want to represent music that feels a little more in-your-face, physical, and alive. At the same time, there’s an element to the shows post-Covid where people are ready to go back to that full-band mentality.
Madison Woodward: I think people want community and authenticity — and obviously hardcore and punk have nothing but that.
[Morbid Angel and Anxious merch / Courtesy of Brain Dead]
It must feel really special knowing that your artist collaboration pieces could be exposing younger generations to a wide array of artists, ranging from classic bands like Morbid Angel to more up-and-coming groups like Anxious, who they may have never discovered otherwise without your influence.
Ng: Totally. When Brain Dead first started, I was releasing cassettes of different DJs, and mixtapes with bands that were not [widely known], but the idea was that if we made T-shirts that connected to these records, you could get the record for free. It wasn’t about selling the record as a product, but as a format that could inspire people. It’s like reverse engineering the idea of a culture-vulture. It’s alright if someone is wearing a Black Flag T-shirt who doesn’t know about the band — as long as they get inspired to go and listen to it.
Instead of being cynical about it, I think it’s cooler to use that to our advantage because it’s our job to give you the most authentic version of it and present it in different forms. Whether it’s Red Hot Chili Peppers, who are the biggest band in the world, or bands like the Locust, we put the exact same care and appreciation into it. The juxtaposition is what makes me excited about doing these things.
[Red Hot Chili Peppers merch / Courtesy of Brain Dead]
What is the overall process like going from working with these heavy-hitter career bands like Green Day to the more underground side of things with bands such as Gulch and Sunami?
Ng: We have friendships with people who are connected [to the music industry] or even [with] the artists themselves, so we are very fortunate to be built within the mainstream. At this point, Brain Dead is a mainstream brand in some form, but at the same time, we have those authentic roots in the most niche [corners] of hardcore, noise, and punk. Madison is someone I knew from his band [Fury] and what he does with Sound And Fury, so it was really important that we put just as much attention to those things. Even if it’s not [necessarily] as big as Red Hot Chili Peppers, it still resonates with core fans.
Speaking of Sound And Fury Festival, your tent at the 2022 installment in LA had easily the biggest lines of the day with attendees coming out to score the exclusive merch you designed for the event. With the success of partnering with the festival and being immersed in the live music space, do you plan to continue doing similar projects in the future?
Ng: We definitely want to continue this in all of the music spaces, but Sound And Fury will always be something that we want to partner with — it’s our culture and we want to be a part of it. We also have a long-lasting relationship with NTS Radio and I used to do shows with them out of our studio office. We’d have everyone from ASAP Nast, Shlomo, electronic musicians, hardcore bands, and singer-songwriters for free because we wanted to provide an opportunity for people to see bands in a small space. Nowadays, you don’t really get that opportunity [as much because] everything is very industry-led or run by the larger companies like Live Nation or Golden Voice. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to see what I dreamed of as a kid by having a brand that did something on a small scale and opened up their space to kids for free. That was the birth of where we wanted to be in the music space — and now we’re in the best hardcore fest in the world. It really could be anything; we can do whatever, as long as it excites us and it’s subversive enough for us to make that action.
Woodward: When Kyle and I started working together, our mission statement was to allow musicians and artists to be experimental again in these spaces. It’s all about the all-mighty dollar [for some in the industry], but for us, we’re excited about bringing music to interesting places and allowing them to do one-offs that they have never been able to accomplish before. We’re really proud of where things are at now and it’s only going to grow and get bigger.