It didn’t take long for 12 Desperate Straight Lines, the second full-length album from Telekinesis, to burrow its way into my brain. Michael Benjamin Lerner specializes in a style that blends upbeat, infectious pop with all the worry and woe of desperate heartbreak – a juxtaposition that challenges the idea of what we think sad music should sound like.
With his album set for release on Tuesday on Merge, Lerner graciously took some time to answer a few questions.
Remember: Lerner brings his band to Tempe’s Sail Inn with The Love Language for a 21-and-over show on Feb. 26. Phoenix’s J. Miller is also scheduled to perform.
So Much Silence: Lead singers as drummers are pretty rare. Do the Phil Collins jokes ever get old?
Michael Benjamin Lerner: Never, ever ever! I am in full support of Phil Collins. He’s amazing. Regardless of whether you listen to his music or not, he’s amazing. He’s a really killer drummer, and he’s also a really killer frontman. He’s also really cheesy, hence the origin of the jokes, I think. But, I love the comparisons. I’m not ashamed of them in any way shape or form!
SMS: But seriously, that takes some coordination. When did you realize that double-duty was a task you could handle in a live setting?
MBL: It certainly does take some coordination, but that’s not the biggest hurdle, believe it or not. The biggest hurdle is figuring out how to breathe and how to pace yourself. Drumming (especially full on rock drumming) can be a physically demanding task, and add in singing to that, it becomes really difficult! It’s always a challenge. I’ve been a drummer for 11 years now, and it’s the only instrument I feel truly comfortable playing, especially in a live setting. I think that’s why it happened. There just wasn’t any other way. I couldn’t/can’t play guitar well enough to pull it off onstage, but drums is just something I felt most comfortable with, oddly enough.
SMS: At shows, a lot of people tend to pay a lot of attention to the singer. Do you set up the drum kit closer to the front of the stage? And if so, does it change the sound dynamic from a more traditional setup?
MBL: Yes, the drums go at the front and center. So, we are all in a line at the front of stage. It’s a little strange at first. I think people that aren’t familiar with our live show already but have listened to the records before are certainly taken aback at first. I mean, drums are loud! And I hit hard. So, it’s just a loud cacophonous experience, especially at a smaller club. But, we’re a rock band, and that’s how rock bands are sometimes. It certainly pisses off sound engineers in venues across the country though. Ha! Too many cables and microphones to move around, I guess!
SMS: You tour with a band but play a majority of the instrumentation yourself when recording. Have you or would you consider bringing a band into the studio?
MBL: Absolutely! The band I have currently, it would be a crime if they weren’t on the next record in at least some capacity! Jason Narducy (Robert Pollard band, Bob Mould band) is an amazing songwriter, as well as bass player. And Cody Votolato (Jaguar Love, The Blood Brothers) is a ripping guitar player, and a killer songwriter as well. So, I think if we all got into the studio together, something really special would happen. I also have this grandiose vision of writing a record as a band, and playing it live in a room, and that being the record. We’ll see if that ever works out though.
SMS: I love both albums and the new one really proves that not all songs about heartache have to be such sad-bastard affairs. Is there something cathartic or hopeful for you in writing such infectious music for what are pretty downcast lyrics?
MBL: Yeah! Sometimes it is cathartic. I’m a super heart-on-my-sleeve kind of fellow. Sometimes even the weather can affect a song. Like, I’m sure it was actually super sunny when I wrote You Turn Clear In The Sun. Even though the lyrics on that one are super dark and sad, the melodies and music are happy.
SMS: From the sound of it, you went through a pretty rough patch that included a breakup and a bout of vertigo. Was there an album(s) that helped you get through that time?
MBL: I don’t remember! I can’t think of one album in particular, probably because I was so focused on feeling better and on making my own record. I was writing a whole heck of a lot, and not listening to a ton of stuff for the months that I wrote 12 Desperate Straight Lines.
SMS: I read that you used a set of Oblique Strategies cards during recording. Did you find that they helped you? If so, was there a certain card/phrase that struck you the most?
MBL: Yes! Big time. It just keeps things moving in the studio. It’s like a handbook! “What wouldn’t you do?” was a good one. The “erase the tape and start over” one is really terrifying.
SMS: Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie) joined you again in the studio. What do you enjoy most about working with him?
MBL: His fearlessness and willingness to try new things is super inspiring. We just had fun in the studio, plain and simple. I think a lot of musicians forget sometimes that making music is really fun. Chris and I definitely didn’t forget about that on this one. We really really enjoyed ourselves immensely, and it was a wonderful experience.
SMS: You recorded the new album to analog tape. What is the benefit of that for you?
MBL: It just forces takes and performances. You can’t go back and fix anything, or create playlists, like you can on a computer. And you have to decide things in the moment, which I love. Plus, it just sounds amazing. And it also smells really good, and is fun to watch.
SMS: Finally, what’s the deal with using ALL CAPS on Twitter?
MBL: Twitter to me is like a newspaper headline. Thus, the all caps. I’m not shouting, I promise!