Local Artist Spotlight: Telekinesis

photo by Charina Pitzel

Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week, we’re featuring Seattle’s Telekinesis, who play Concerts at the Mural this Friday, August 11. with SISTERS and Haley Heynderickx.

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Since 2008, Michael Lerner has been making music under the Telekinesis moniker. In that time he’s been a power-pop enthusiast, an analog synth experimenter, and a band leader to a rotating cast of fellow Northwest indie rock heroes with the band’s touring lineup. All that to say Telekinesis is hard to define because Lerner and his music are always changing, which is what makes following his work so compelling. We caught up with Lerner to delve more into the impetus of the project, following his muses, and how hard it is to catch your breath when you’re playing drums and singing at the same time.

As I’ve understood it, Telekinesis has been you in the studio and bringing in friends to help flesh out the live shows. Did you always envision Telekinesis as a solo act? Do you like to bring in other collaborators when you’re in the studio?

You know, I never really envisioned Telekinesis as more than anything other than for myself when I first started writing my own music somewhat seriously around 2008. Around that time I was a drummer playing in way too many bands getting sort of burned out on that whole thing. I think I wanted to challenge myself to learn some other instruments well enough to try to make some actual songs, where I played all the instruments and sang. Cut to 2017, and I’m staring down record number five (!) as this project, and it’s mostly been a solo venture ever since, but only because I think Telekinesis songs sound the way they do because of my lack of knowledge on all the other instruments but the drums. I think if I added other people to the mix on the writing and recording front it just wouldn’t work as well, and I don’t think would sound like Telekinesis anymore. I feel like I’m able to write songs to my strengths and weaknesses in a manner in which only I am totally aware of (for obvious reasons), and it just seems to work that way.

I enjoy the collaboration between myself and a producer/engineer. There is something really exciting about having a bunch of demos, and then sending them to someone’s ears for the first time and getting into a studio with said person’s super fresh outlook on how to actually capture the song. Sometimes when you do it all yourself you can lose perspective on things super quickly, so having someone to guide the ship to the harbor can be extremely helpful!

Your last album, 2015’s Ad Infinitum, saw you experimenting more with synthesizers and drum machines. What lead you to into this direction? Is there any sounds or ideas you’re infatuated with now that might make it onto the next record?

I think the impetus was, at the very core, being bored with the electric guitar. I remember picking it up one day and just being tremendously bored. Around that time Mac McCaughan from Merge Records and Superchunk sent me a gift of the Blue Nile’s first record A Walk Across The Rooftops. That changed the game for me. I basically got obsessed with that, as well as O.M.D., and really just challenged myself to try to write a record in that vein. I didn’t want to do it all on computers, so I gathered as many old synths as I could and it was really fun and exciting to learn how they all worked.

I think now I’m excited about slinging a guitar around my neck again, so that feels good. I bought an 8-track tape machine and am hoping to utilize that in a way that keeps the songs simple and no frills. It’s too early to tell, we’ll see!

Your live lineup of the band has constantly changed and often features members from acts like Say Hi, Wild Flag, Blood Brothers, etc. — spanning a wide array of genres and Northwest sounds. How much do you feel your live sound change based on who’s in the group?

Everyone brings something new to the table, I’m an incredibly lucky guy to have played with so many different people from all different musical backgrounds. For example, when Cody from Blood Brothers was in the band we sounded tough as nails because he’s such a rock and roll guy at the core, so I reckon Telekinesis’ songs sounded super in your face and aggressive during that time period, which was absolutely perfect for the record we toured on (12 Desperate Straight Lines), which was a super angry break-up record. It felt amazing to get that aggression out on stage with him.

It’s a truly amazing thing to have songs you wrote years ago sound different each iteration of the touring band.

Typically you’re seen behind the kit and singing lead vocals during a Telekinesis set. As you play such a wide array of instruments, what made you want to take the drum throne on tour? Do you ever find any difficulties with the high energy the drums take while singing?

It was out of necessity, really! Looking back I think I was so nervous about singing in front of people and the drums were like my security blanket perhaps. I felt so comfortable playing them. I love playing the drums, it would be difficult to think about leaving them for good and trying to play guitar or bass or something, but it does come with it’s challenges. It’s hard because you are sitting down, which as the singer, immediately puts you at a disadvantage you have to try to make up for in other ways. It’s a challenge, of course, but it’s still something that looks somewhat strange on stage, perhaps.

Breathing is the hardest thing. My songs are pretty fast and would be difficult to play without singing, on a purely physical level, so adding in singing which requires SO much breath control, it becomes quite difficult when you are struggling for air after playing a fast song.

Over the years you’ve done quite a few covers, from Nirvana to INXS. Flipping the script a little bit, if you could pick any artist to cover one of your songs, who would it be and which song would they cover?

Ah, good question!

I think it would be pretty amazing to hear Flin Flon cover any song off of 12 Desperate Straight Lines. Most of that record is directly inspired by that band, so maybe hearing their take on a song like “Please Ask For Help” would be super trippy.

You’ve been performing as Telekinesis since 2008. How do you feel the local scene has changed and morphed in that time?

It’s hard to put that into words, because I think it has changed, but not tangibly. Seattle’s thing is so easy to pinpoint, and the way bands interact with each other here is so much different than in LA, or New York. It’s always been very familial, very friendly. That doesn’t seem to have changed, or will ever change.

 

 

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