Power pop is a well worn path sometimes, but the upcoming debut album from Telekinesis is already one of the best records going in 2009. Centered around the songwriting of Seattle native Michael Lerner, Telekinesis channels the best of some seriously classic pop and rock while making it feel endlessly alive. AD caught up with Michael via phone, prior to SXSW, to talk about working with Chris Walla in producing the album, their ‘don’t look back’ philosophy, how Merge Records is an awesome place to land and why being big in Japan would be a dream come true.
Aquarium Drunkard: On your MySpace it lists you as being based out of Seattle. Are you from there originally?
Michael Lerner: Yes, I was born and raised in Seattle.
AD: That’s a pretty intense city to grow up in, musically. And I guess this is a less personal question between two guys, but how old are you?
AD: So what were the influences you had growing up that have affected the music you create?
ML: My father was a disc jockey on the radio for 30 years – most of those years in Seattle. He was on a rock station here in the 70s when the whole thing was happening with Zeppelin, the Who and Pink Floyd. And that’s when you were introducing bands. He was introducing bands like that at the big venues here in Seattle and he just retired two years ago and ended on a AAA station. But my dad is a big Beatles nut – so I was raised in a big Beatles household. So I grew up on that kind of 60s pop music – the Beatles, the Kinks and that type of stuff. Just being around that from a really early age, that’s what’s in my blood, you know?
AD: What I hear when I listen to the album, and maybe this reflects more of what I listen to, but especially in the softer moments on the record I hear Big Star.
ML: Oh, totally. Like, the Posies..
AD: Another Seattle band.
ML: Yeah. That’s cool. I will definitely not argue with that. I love Big Star.
AD: The new record was produced by Chris Walla and he’s from up in that area of the country as well. How did y’all get together?
ML: I knew Chris Walla through Jason McGerr who now drums for Death Cab for Cutie. I work in Jason’s recording studio in Seattle and that’s the place I recorded the record as well. I took drum lessons from Jason from way before he was in Death Cab and then he joined the band, we had become friends and I met everyone in Death Cab through him. I think Chris heard about the MySpace, maybe through Jason, and listened to some tracks and sent me a message on there saying ‘Hey, I like your songs,’ and that was about it. They played the first show of the Narrow Stairs tour in Bremerton [Washington] which is where Ben [Gibbard; Death Cab for Cutie] is from. After that show, Chris came up and said ‘I want to make your record,’ so I said ‘okay!’ [laughs] So that’s how it happened. We took two weeks in September and knocked it out and it was a lot of fun.
AD: So on record, Telekinesis is, literally, just you. Do you play everything on the album?
ML: Not everything. Most of it. Chris played some bass and piano and some guitar and David Broecker played a couple of bass tracks on the record, but the rest of it is me. So I had a little bit of help.
AD: How long has the idea of Telekinesis as an outfit existed? With people out with you on tour as the band, is that a relatively new concept? Have you had people work with you in the past under the name Telekinesis or is this totally new?
ML: The current thing has only been going on for six months. We’ve probably played like 15 shows together now. So there were a couple of people who played before in the current line up, but as far as the solid Telekinesis line up, it’s only been six months.
AD: Has that been a different experience? When you’re crafting this stuff in the studio, you can exert complete control, so how is it different taking it out on the road with people?
ML: Yeah, it’s been amazing. There’s one song on the record, “Calling all Doctors,” that is very piano and vocal focused. When we play it live, we’ve worked it out with the band, it’s a more guitar driven tune. It’s really cool ’cause it’s taken on a new life. It’s fun to hear a song I wrote awhile ago and now it sounds totally different and fresh and cool.
AD: One of the things I’ve read about the recording process was that you and Chris decided you would spend a day on each song – when you finished working on the song for the day, that was it. You didn’t go back and work on things after each day.
ML: Yeah, and that was amazing. We did the record to a 2-inch, 24 track tape machine which I’ve never done before. I do all the demos on a computer. We kind of had that ‘don’t look back’ type mentality for the whole process. We’d set up and record a song, track the whole thing, drums, bass, vocals, guitar, whatever was on the song, Chris would mix it after it was tracked – he’d spend an hour to three or four hours mixing it – and once it was mixed, we would print it to two-track tape machine and then it was done. And we were ‘that’s cool, that’s it.’ We’d take down everything – patch cables, microphones, the drums sometimes – and start completely new for each song.
It was a way in which I’ve never been able to work. You had to completely commit to everything. You couldn’t say to yourself ‘oh, can I just go back and fix that later?’ Working in a way that you’re just recording and then completely clean slate and starting again, you don’t have that opportunity. It was really beneficial for the record and for making performances – for the one-person-trying-to-make-a-band sound. It’s easier to make a performance if you know you can’t go back and fix it, so you have to pour your heart out onto the tape at that moment.
AD: It gives the album a very energetic and lively feel.
ML: That’s really good to hear. That’s how I felt making it. I was excited for that whole two weeks. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life. Being in the studio with someone like Chris Walla was an amazing experience. He’s a friend of mine, but at the same time I look up to him so much and what he does for a living and being in a band and recording bands. Without any shred of doubt, he’s a total genius. He’s a really, really incredible person to work with and I totally loved every second of making this record.
AD: The record is coming out on Merge Records. When did everything get locked in with Merge? What was the timeline for when you finished the record and when you got signed with them?
ML: We finished the record in late September. Which is awhile ago now. You think, ‘wow, that sounds a long time ago,’ but it totally doesn’t feel like that long ago. The whole Merge thing happened two-and-a-half to three months ago. And we were talking with quite a few labels before going with Merge. We were talking with Columbia and Barsuk and several labels. And it was a lot of back and forth with those people and then we decided to go with Merge. The whole things was locked down about three months ago.
AD: So, why Merge?
ML: I just adore that label so much, with my whole entire heart. It’s an amazing label. Being a part of Merge on their 20th anniversary is really, really awesome. They’re like a family – not to sound all mafia or anything – but it really is. Talking to them on a daily basis is amazing and a really great experience with every person who works there. And not to say the other labels wouldn’t have been like that, but in my gut it really felt like the right thing to do. It’s been so awesome so far. I really could not be happier. I have to pinch myself all the time, because I worked in a record store in Seattle for three years. Getting to see the Telekinesis record as a Merge advance – because I saw them all the time when I worked in the store – it was totally trippy and very surreal. I couldn’t be happier.
AD: In the lyrics on the record, there is a lot of travel imagery. Where does that come from?
ML: I really love traveling, definitely. I lived in Europe for a year – I lived in Liverpool, England and went to university there and studied recording at Paul McCartney’s school of art. Pretty crazy. When I was there, I traveled a lot. I did this thing – I’d go to the train station every week, look at the board and say, ‘where can I go?’ I’d take my camera and get on the train and take a day trip to some city. I had this student rail card and it was super cheap and I would do that all the time. Flying there is so cheap too, so Norway for Christmas and Spain and Paris and all these wonderful places. I loved being out of my element and exploring a new place. It’s kind of addicting, I think. I feel like that definitely shows up on the record from being excited about traveling and also having a girlfriend who lives half-way across the country, it’s easy to feel like the distance thing is a big theme on the record. Probably subconsciously, too. I don’t even think I realized that until I heard it.
And there’s a song called “Tokyo” on the record and that’s a place I really, really want to visit. I’ve been watching television shows, like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations about Tokyo, and it totally reinforced the fact that I want to go there. I think that whole wanderlust thing is really apparent in the lyrics.
AD: Your kind of pop music goes over well in Japan usually, yeah? So you want to take Telekinesis to Japan?
ML: Yes. I definitely do. I hope it goes over well there, I really do. I think we would all have such a fun time there. That would be a dream come true. words/ j. neas