Having drummed for various bands in Seattle since his mid-teens, Telekinesis' Michael Benjamin Lerner started writing songs during early morning sessions while studying audio recording at Sir Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts. Using studios left unoccupied by his sleeping classmates, Lerner crafted simple power pop confections that, when he returned to the United States, caught the ears of Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla and various record labels. Lerner eventually went with indie powerhouse Merge Records, which released the Walla-produced Telekinesis! in April. Now on the road with a full band he picked up thanks to his day job as a recording engineer, Lerner spoke with Decider prior to Saturday's show at Mohawk about meeting McCartney, the advantages of singing while drumming, and why he'll never be as whimsical as labelmate Dan Bejar.
Decider: Was Telekinesis something you always wanted to flesh out as a whole band?
Michael Benjamin Lerner: I was just writing songs for fun, and it was something that was challenging for me. I didn't go so far as to think about what would happen live—or whether anybody would listen to it—and then Chris Walla got in touch and said, "I want to produce your record." Once the record was made, it kind of spiraled out of control, in a good way. It started getting really crazy right after Chris posted about the band on Stereogum the first time. That's when I started to think, "Oh my gosh, I'm making rock 'n' roll music, and you can't really press 'play' on a laptop and play rock 'n' roll music." I think it's possible, but it's the most boring thing you could ever do.
D: You met your bandmates while working with them as their recording engineer—so the time spent at the Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts paid off?
MBL: It did. And I got to shake [McCartney's] hand at the end of the year, which was worth every single hour of no sleep and not taking care of myself.
D: Was he at the graduation ceremony? Did he hand you your diploma?
MBL: He did, and it was pretty nerve wracking. I'm a humongous Beatles fan, and it's so weird to get that close to that person who you've seen on DVDs and in pictures and listened to their records so many times.
D: Was there ever any point where you thought you'd step out from behind the drum kit and front Telekinesis on guitar?
MBL: I can fumble my way through a song on guitar in a recording environment, but if you put a guitar in front of me in a live situation, I get really nervous. And if you put a drum kit in front of me, it's like, [sighs] "It feels so good." There's all this junk in front of me, and I can hit it really hard—it's awesome. It definitely crossed my mind that playing the guitar is more conventional than trying to outdo Phil Collins and Don Henley, but I really love playing the drums and singing. We're trying to get better at setting the stage up in a way that's more engaging for people.
D: Do you set the drums up at the center of the stage?
MBL: Yeah, so the first few people in the crowd—if it's a stage where there's not much room between the audience and the band—they get absolutely blasted with kick drum, and I feel so bad. But usually they come back to the merch table and they're all smiling.
D: Telekinesis! is populated by imaginary friends and songs about taking vacations in your mind. Do you spend a lot of time daydreaming?
MBL: I'm definitely daydreaming about going to places like Tokyo and wondering what it's going to be like, and trying to picture myself in the city. It's easier to do that than watch Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.
What do you see yourself doing?
MBL: Playing pachinko, and buying way too many little trinkets. I just bought this talking watch on the Internet that tells you the time in Japanese. There are probably things like that times a million in Tokyo.
D: You've said in other interviews that you're a big Destroyer fan. Are the characters like Henrietta in "Rust" little nods to the characters in Dan Bejar's songs?
MBL: No, Henrietta is a real person that I had the hugest crush on in Liverpool. I think Bejar's writing about things that come through his head. I don't know what he's talking about most of the time, but I really try to figure it out, and that's what's cool about his music. That's the opposite of what we do, I think, because Telekinesis is really straightforward and simple, with lyrics about traveling and love. Something like Destroyer is really whimsical and off the wall, which is something that I would like be able to do. But it's tough to write about something that isn't really dear to you, at least for me. But I think that's because I wear my emotions on my sleeve.