Twenty-four years ago, Stevie Wonder put a hand on the pregnant belly of Michael Benjamin Lerner’s mother and said, “I bless this child.” “My parents like to tell me that’s why I play music,” says Lerner, whose father spent three decades as a radio DJ (and often brought his wife backstage).
But Lerner, a Seattle native who records chipper indie rock under the name Telekinesis, traces his songwriting roots to the night his dad took him to see Radiohead on the Kid A tour. “After that show, I quit every sport I was playing and started focusing on drums,” he says. Posthigh school, he even attended a Liverpool recording academy founded by Paul McCartney, where the unabashed pop fan gave a 30-minute oral presentation on Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”
Lerner returned to the States, posted songs on MySpace, and was stunned when Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla e-mailed to praise his work. It wasn’t empty talk — Walla wound up producing both 2009’s Telekinesis! and the recent 12 Desperate Straight Lines (Merge), an unusually buoyant breakup album filled with crunchy Weezer-esque riffs, sunny melodies, and punchy bass lines. “When I was making the first record, I’d say, ‘Man, I don’t think I can write a sad song.’ And on this record I was like, ‘Yup. I can do it,’?” Lerner laughs.
Lerner, who played all but a handful of parts on the record but mostly sticks to drums live (Telekinesis tours as a trio with Jason Narducy on bass and Cody Votolato on guitar), had plenty to be bummed about — health issues, a failed relationship — when he was injured in a van crash last year that delayed recording for months. When he and Walla finally hit the studio, they relied on Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards — a set of instructions ranging from the mundane (“Go drink some water”) to the extreme (“Erase everything”). They also accidentally detonated a guitar amplifier. “It was a very rock’n’roll moment,” says Lerner. “We were psyched.”
After forthcoming U.S. and European treks, Lerner plans to begin writing a third album, but for now he hopes listeners enjoy the intricacies of Straight Lines, which includes a drum track he laid down in reverse. “I don’t think we did that to any vocals, so there’s no demonic messages,” he adds. “But you may have to try playing the album backwards.”
WATCH: Telekinesis at SXSW