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Telekinesis man Lerner power pops into the spotlight

Michael Benjamin Lerner, center, with bandmates Jason Narducy, left, and Cody Votolato. - Kyle Johnson/Courtesy photo
Michael Benjamin Lerner, center, with bandmates Jason Narducy, left, and Cody Votolato.
— image credit: Kyle Johnson/Courtesy photo

Kenmore musician hooks up with Bothell’s Death Cab man to produce popular albums

Tina Lerner, whose son would later perform under the moniker Telekinesis, could tell early on that Michael was destined to be a talented drummer.

When the fourth-grader at Kenmore Elementary asked for a drum kit, he got it. However, this one was devised from items in Tina's kitchen cupboards and around the house. "It was cut out of cardboard and had a paper front and back and I filled in some towels to fluff it up, and the cymbals were made out of foil ... and away he went," Tina said with a laugh.

"It was awesome. I think that was the real impetus for me," said Michael (middle name Benjamin as listed in his music bio), now 24, via e-mail while on tour to support his new, sophomore album, "12 Desperate Straight Lines."

Dad Vince noted that Michael, who also sings and plays a variety of instruments, has come a long way since the faux — but cherished — drum kit set his son into action at the school talent show. At that gig, Michael and his buddies lip-synched to "That Thing You Do!" by the Wonders from the Tom Hanks rock-and-roll movie of the same name.

Nowadays, Michael's kit is more in synch with legendary powerhouse drummer John Bonham's setup, Vince said. "He's got that Led Zeppelin bass drum, it's big and he physically pushes you back," he added about Michael setting his drums up at the front of the stage during gigs.

POP ROCKS

Michael and his band — featuring solid players Jason Narducy on bass/vocals and Cody Votolato on guitar — will perform March 26 at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle. The hometown gig will certainly be a celebration of Michael's second album garnering ace reviews from Spin and Rolling Stone and having his music reach TV audiences on "Chuck," "The Event" and "The Vampire Diaries." Songs in Ford car commercials, on movie soundtracks and a possible upcoming TV appearance are also part of Telekinesis' musical world.

With Michael's melodic voice reaching the high end of the spectrum, mixed with thumping bass, guitars hitting loud and soft notes and, of course, those stomping drum beats, Telekinesis' pop tunes pack a punch.

"I love power pop. But, I think a lot of this new record has some weird '90s rock going on, and also some '80s new-wave stuff happening. It's kind of all over the place, I guess," said Michael, with Vince adding that his son brought some Cure influences to the table on "12." (Traces of classic indie bands like Dinosaur Jr. and the Wipers can also be found in some tunes on his two records.)

"I like a good riff and a good pop tune — there's nothing better to listen to," said Vince, a self-proclaimed Beatles "freak" who has interviewed everyone from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to Coldplay during his 30-plus-year radio career.

Speaking of McCartney, Michael earned his recording and engineering degree from the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts — and received his diploma from the Beatles' bassist in 2005.

THE WALLA FACTOR

That was also the year, Michael's sister Erika Long believes, that two Northshore musical minds collided with the precision of a stunning pop song flowing onto analog tape just right in a recording studio. Inglemoor High's Michael and Bothell High's Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie fame met at mutual friend Jason McGerr's wedding. McGerr drums for Death Cab and gave Michael lessons starting when he was around 10 years old.

"After that, they ran into each other at (Death Cab) shows, and then eventually Chris heard some of Michael's stuff, and, voila, history," said Erika, 27, also an Inglemoor graduate who now works at Barsuk Records, a prominent Seattle independent record label.

Walla has produced both of Michael's records; he released his self-titled debut in 2009 on North Carolina's renowned Merge Records, the label that has also unleashed "12" and records from Arcade Fire, Superchunk and countless others to the world.

"He's just a huge genius of a personality. He makes me sound better than I could ever imagine. He's just great at inspiring performances in the studio, and also at having a great time recording," Michael said of Walla, who plays bass on a few of the "12" songs, while Mr. Telekinesis does the rest. "We record to analog tape because it's more fun that way. You have to commit to stuff, you have to make sure it's right when you are doing it. You have to keep little mistakes or blemishes, and it keeps you on your toes. Along with sounding better than anything digital, of course."

Songs like "I Cannot Love You" and "Palm of Your Hand" literally burst out of the speakers, "Dirty Thing" hops along to a mellow beat with guitar and keyboards effectively playing off each other and "Patterns" hits on somber with an echoey vocal and haunting piano.

DRUMMING UP SONGS

Compiling "12" wasn't an easy task, says Michael, who — prior to writing the album's songs — experienced the breakup of a long-distance relationship, suffered a mysterious ailment that left him temporarily deaf in one ear and crashed his touring van. So, he hit the "escape button" and wound up in Berlin, Germany (home to his European record label, Morr Music) and wrote one song a day.

"I did challenge myself to do a song a day, basically. It was a really good thing for me to work that way, because it forces me to write as much as possible. Some of the songs turn out pretty bad, as is to be expected, but every once in a while you come up with something that excites you, and that's a really incredible feeling," he said.

Sister Erika — who got Michael hooked on Radiohead in his younger years — said it's fulfilling to see him play fully executed songs live, lift people's spirits and have them come along for the ride as fans.

She explained that her little brother was always the drummer in bands like the John Wu Project, Yesan and Damen and Battle Hymns, but she soon discovered he had a way with words — not just drum sticks.

"I noticed a shift when I would find his school notebooks on the couch at home, and steal a glance," she said. "Instead of math or science notes, there would be lyrics. I, as the good sister does, tattled that he wasn’t doing his work, but in reality, I was pretty impressed because, even though all the lyrics were about girls, they were pretty insightful and sweet. He’s always been a romantic, in life and love, but seeing those words actually written in poetry form was pretty cool."

But there's one song in particular from the first record that isn't about any of those topics and puts his mom in the spotlight: "Imaginary Friend." It goes, "When I was young, I had imaginary friends, and boy, did we have fun; One day my mother told me they were just pretend, and then I had no one."

True story, mom laughs, noting that Michael had a fort in the corner of the back yard where he would visit with his "friends."

"Every time he plays that song in concert, I kind of cringe," Tina said. "And all my friends point at me and go, 'Ha! Ha!'"

KICK OUT THE JAMS

Although his songs are heartfelt and address personal issues, Michael doesn't let the lyrics dictate where his performance will lead him each night. Some musicians might let the emotions flow to the point of tears, but that's not the Telekinesis modus operandi.

"It's actually not such a cathartic experience, weirdly, to play these live," he said. "I mean, they mean something to you when you are writing it, but your life ebbs and flows so much in that period, to touring, that it would really be a bummer if every time you sang a song live (for weeks on end), you felt angry or sad all over again."

And it doesn't hurt to have people like Narducy and Votolato on board live.

"It's amazing. My band rules," he said. "(Narducy) is a legend. He plays with Bob Mould and Bob Pollard, and also had his own band called Verbow, which were popular in the '90s. (Votolato) used to be in the Blood Brothers, and plays in a band called Jaguar Love now. So, obviously we're having a whole lot of fun playing this new record live."

Michael's first live performance with a real drum kit was in sixth grade, when he played along to Smashmouth's "All Star" in front of another Kenmore Elementary crowd, Tina said.

He's surely banged his way through many drum sets since then, and Vince is blown away watching his son do his thing on stage.

"It's like he's running a marathon every night. I've seen him after many shows, and he's exhausted," said dad, who does radio work for KZOK and KIRO these days. "I'm totally impressed and proud. It's such a crazy, different life, and somehow, he's made his way through the maze."

Added Michael about sitting in on rock-star interviews with his dad as a kid: "Just being around music with him was pretty helpful. He definitely warned me about the craziness of the industry, which was helpful. Because it is crazy. But they (parents and sister) always had confidence in me, and that helped out so much from the very beginning. I think my parents have been to virtually every hometown or Pacific Northwest show I've ever played."

HOME SWEET HOME

Growing up in Kenmore with a supportive family has sent Erika and Michael on their way, with confidence, to succeed in their chosen musical fields.

Erika noted that when they weren't listening to music, the siblings rode their bikes around the block 50 times in a row until it got dark and bonded with their neighbors, who "have become lifelong pals, and make up about half of the audience at most local shows," she said.

"Sometimes when I’m home in Kenmore to visit, I steal away upstairs and go through the boxes of pictures of us as little punks," Erika added ... "and just reminisce about what a really great family we have, and how well we all thrive because of one another."

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