Telekinesis lead singer Michael Benjamin Lerner is enjoying the indie-rock life

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010

Singer-songwriter Michael Benjamin Lerner is a hipster, and he's not ashamed to admit it.

"I like music. I like photography. I like coffee. I like living in Seattle, and all of these things are hipster things so I probably am a hipster. I like skinny jeans. . . . I have dark-rimmed glasses," Lerner says by phone somewhere between Portland, Ore., and Chicago on his way to rehearse with a new bass player.

Lerner, 24, is Telekinesis, which he started in 2007. He writes fun rock-pop gems that highlight a fuzzy guitar sound, layered vocals, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and purposely unpolished production. (NPR's Carrie Brownstein called his song "Dirty Tricks" "a catchy number full of serpentine riffs and sauce-pot lyrics, with fuzz gathering on the song like moss on a rolling stone.")

Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie discovered Lerner's tunes in 2008, and his career took off from there. He signed with Merge Records in 2009, produced his first album, "Telekinesis!," with Walla, and toured the United States five times and Europe twice. He released an EP last month, and his second full-length album is due early next year.

"I feel kind of like one of the luckiest people on the planet Earth right now," Lerner says. "I get to drive around in a van with my friends and play rock shows and see the country, and I get to make records. . . . It's my job, which is kind of silly."

Part of the fun of touring, he says, are all the record stores he comes across. In keeping with his hipster persona, Lerner owns only a smattering of CDs, having sold most of them to the Seattle record store where he once worked. Today, he owns about 300 vinyl records.

"I only buy records," he says. "I just love it . . . and it smells really good -- like crazy vinyl chemicals. It's awesome." His latest vinyl quest is Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "Dazzle Ships," released in 1983.

Lerner began playing the drums in high school in Seattle, surrounded by music from his DJ dad. He has since picked up the guitar and bass, but at shows, he is front and center pounding away on the drums, singing lead vocals above the fray.

"I love playing drums and singing live because it's so fun to be able to hit something really hard every night and make lots of loud music. I just can't imagine not playing drums."

He developed his writing and production chops at a recording school in England in 2006.

"We were in a class where we were sort of bottom of the barrel, and we didn't get the desired studio time, so I would be in the studio from like 2 in the morning to 9 in the morning and no one would ever want to record at that time except for me, so I just kind of had to learn how to be the band so I could get my assignments done," he says. "That's kind of when I started making rock."

Lerner records most of his tunes to tape. He says it sounds better, and he likes the way it works. "If you record something [on tape], you can't go back and fix it. It's done. It's on a track. You can't go on your computer and make it sound awesome. . . . I don't know if it's better or more artistic, it's just a method of working that I really, really enjoy. And it seems to work well for me because I really like getting super prepared before I make a record, so that I go into the studio and just knock everything out."

For his current tour, Lerner has a new band (he calls it "a power trio"), with Jason Narducy on bass and Cody Votolato on guitar. He says he is excited about where he is in his career and intends to perform as long as it makes him and his audiences happy.

And part of what makes him happy are the same qualities that make him a hipster, and that's okay with him.

"I'm kind of into the '50s, and the '60s and the '70s a lot . . . and I don't know if it's hipster or whatever, but I kind of like it. . . . It's just the way that young people are being cool, and ['hipster'] is just the term that describes it. It doesn't offend me at all."

TELEKINESIS Appearing Friday with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and Exit Clov at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets: $12. 202-667-4490. The Download: For a sampling of Telekinesis's music, check out: From "Telekinesis!": "Coast of Carolina" "Tokyo" "Awkward Kisser" -- Michael Benjamin Lerner on his indie-rock lifestyle

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