February 15, 2011

Interview: Telekinesis's Michael Lerner

Everybody Taste recently chatted with Seattle musician Michael Benjamin Lerner, who under the nome de plume Telekinesis, released his second full-length album today—the dark and bass-heavy 12 Desperate Straight Lines. We chatted about recording with Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla, Lerner's preference for analog tape, his adoration of the band Flin Flon, and the album's excellent grimy and fuzzy bass guitar.

I understand you wrote the majority of 12 Desperate Straight Lines during the winter in Berlin on a 9 to 5 routine. Why Germany? And why the schedule? Were you just determined to start generating new material?

Yes! True. I was going through a lot of stuff in my personal life (breakup, health issues), and I had always dreamed of picking up and going to a place that is foreign and uncomfortable to write music. Berlin seemed to be like the best choice purely because I knew some people there to hook up an apartment, and a practice space. I mean, it turned out to be the perfect situation. I got a killer room in an apartment in an amazing location, and rented a rehearsal space that had a drum kit and a guitar amp and a bass amp in it. It was just so perfect. And it was amazing and cold and snowy and I got to explore and hang out with my friends. I feel completely lucky to have had that experience. I wrote a lot of songs that I am very proud of there. Like "50 Ways," "I Cannot Love You" and "Car Crash." It was fun to follow in the footsteps of Lou Reed, David Bowie and Depeche Mode.

Tell me about working with Chris Walla. You've recorded with him now on both albums. How does his approach to recording and producing fit in with your vision of Telekinesis?

I can never ever never say enough good things about Chris Walla. I mean, we all know him as the dude in Death Cab for Cutie, but he's a really dear friend to me, and such a talented human being. I'm so happy to know him. We really understand each other on a working level, I think. It's important to let someone like Chris have no limitations in a recording environment, because he tries so many crazy things. And I think I am really good at letting him do what he wants to do, because I know that it always ends up in a really amazing place. I have a huge amount of trust in him. And we just have fun, plain and simple. Making these two records with him have been some of the most fun I've ever had, and it's because we really understand each other, I think, and because he's just a really, really special fellow.

You recorded both of your albums to analog tape, which is certainly worth mentioning for those of us raised on Garageband and ProTools. What's important about the analog recording process to you? What does that mean for your sound?

It's a really super different way of recording. Sound wise, yes. We all hear that. But, functionality is so different too! It lets you have breaks (rewinding tape takes time!), and it makes you play better! It also lends to 'performances' which is something that is super important when making a record by yourself. And by performances, I mean that you can't go back and perfect everything through takes and such. Playlists, or whatever. In analog world, you can only punch in. And if the punch-er (Chris Walla, in our case) or punch-ee (me) fucks up, then the whole track is fucked up and you have to go back and re record the whole track. It's not salvageable at that point. It puts this really amazing pressure on everyone involved. It makes recording fun and exciting. Like, anything could happen at any time. I really like that. I guess you could say I'm a very impatient person, and need to feel that challenge constantly. And with tape, you always do.

Right off the bat, you introduce 12 Desperate Straight Lines as a breakup album of sorts with "You Turn Clear In The Sun." In that way, a lot of the album feels harder and edgier than your debut, but "You Turn Clear In The Sun" feels like its doing everything it can to retain some semblance of hope and optimism. Are you conscious of that balance of emotion and feeling when writing and recording?

Yes and no. I write music in such a heart on my sleeve way. It's the only way I know, I think. Which makes sense when you listen to LP1 and LP2 sequentially. LP1, I'm all happy and lovesick, and then LP2 I'm all sick and sad and mad about love. I think I never thought I could write a sad song, after LP2. But, I proved myself wrong in that regard. It's edgier and rougher, because I was edgy and rough. It reflects my personal life so distinctly. Which is scary and hard, but I'm so proud of it now, looking back. I went through a lot of shit, and I came out on the other end happier, and wiser. So, hooray for that!

Was there an effort to not go too dark? "50 Ways" seems like an especially difficult song to have written.

That song was super hard! Both in the lyrical and musical sense. I wrote that one in Berlin. And it was so fucking cold and dark there. All day. Every day. I think it was sunny the day I left. That was it. And that didn't help me in the 'writing happy songs' department. But, truthfully, that song is a supreme ripoff of Pedro The Lion's "Magazine." I think that song is the bees knees.

One of my favorite aspects of the album is the bass guitar: it has a gnarly, dark, almost industrial sound, but is always driving forward. Did you write any of the album on bass? There are certain songs, like "I Cannot Love You," that I can't imagine hearing without it.

Yes! That's very keen of you to figure out! A BUNCH of the songs were written on the bass. "Please Ask For Help," "I Cannot Love You," "Country Lane." Those are all songs that have that crazy fuzz bass sound, and were absolutely written on the bass, and were absolutely a direct response to my obsession with the band Flin Flon. I was listening to their record, A-OK, a shit ton when I was writing, and it seeped into all sorts of places on this new Telekinesis record. I definitely told Chris Walla to focus in on that bass sound. He's the reason I got into Flin Flon in the first place, so it wasn't super hard to convince him to dive into that.

"Please Ask For Help" has a particularly furious bass riff. I read you wrote it while listening to the Cure's Disintegration on repeat? The guitar also reminds me a bit of early New Order circa Power, Corruption and Lies. What made you think to channel that sound? It's epic heartbreak material.

You are speaking my language! Yes yes! New Order, The Cure, and Joy Division were all on serious repeat when I wrote that song. It's so easy to go that route. Listen to those records, and be crazy inspired to write like that. Those bands just wreak cool. I think we all secretly want to be them.

"Dirty Thing" is a song I continue coming back to. How did that make its way from the Parallel Seismic Conspiracies EP to 12 Desperate Straight Lines?

Well, I do most if not all of the TK demos on my MacBook using just the little built in condenser and Logic Pro. And that's how "Dirty Thing" from PSC was recorded. And in that lo-fi way, it has a really special place in my heart. I actually rooted for that version to be on the record, but Chris recommended we try to re record it at least. He also suggested speeding it up a bit, and changing the key. Which proved a challenge for me! But, it totally worked, and I think it came out great. I'm really proud of both versions for how different they present the song. It's fun to have different versions kicking around.

Let's talk about track order. It sounds like there was a lot of time and detail invested in the outros and segues between songs? The album itself feels very much like a interconnected work rather than a collection of songs.

Yes! But, I actually had nothing to do with that! That was Walla's sequence idea. I wanted to have nothing to do with it. I felt too close to the songs to make a conscious decision about the running order. That stuff can make or break a record, I think. And I really really like Walla's sequence.

How did the album title come about? A "desperate straight line" is an interesting analogy for a song.

True! Again, it's Walla! He e-mailed me right after we finished recording the album with that title. It's a play off a possible title for the David Bowie Berlin record, and it seemed like a pretty amazing fit for the record, seeing as there are 12 songs. Again, I take no credit for this! It's all Walla.

You end the album with a bit of blues on "Gotta Get It Right Now." It's decidedly more hopeful and playful than the preceding 11 songs, but at the same time, lyrically, you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself. What made you want to end with "Gotta Get It Right Now"? And is that the way it feels to be playing popular music today—it's now or never?

Yeah, I guess so. I think we ended with that song because the end contains (on accident) the same melody as the first song. And that just seems like the logical way to end a record. Where it begins.

On a lighter note, I understand you're a bit of a vinyl nut. Have you picked up any great additions so far in the new year?

Yes! Absolutely! I am on a super vinyl kick. I just bought: Big Star's Radio City / Beach Boys' Pet Sounds / Cat Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman / Guided By Voices' Alien Lanes / Club 8's The People's Record and was given Orchestral Maneouvres In The Dark's Dazzle Ships by my dear friend Jeff Byrd. Thanks for that, Jeff.

As a vinyl connoisseur, how do you feel about colored vinyl versus the classic black? Marketing gimmick or collectible treasure?

It's all a matter of taste! I am a purveyor of all sorts of colours and shapes!

12 Deperate Straight Lines is out now. Catch the band on its current tour with The Love Language.

Telekinesis - "Car Crash" (from 12 Desperate Straight Lines)


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