A Brand New Era
Dec 02, 2015
Photography by Chris Beck Issue #54 - August/September 2015 - CHVRCHES
"It's sort of like Desmond in Lost pushing the button in the hatch," says Michael Benjamin Lerner with a laugh, of the isolation he often experienced during the creation of the latest Telekinesis album, the synth-heavy Ad Infinitum. "You start feeling like him if you don't have anyone around all day while you're pushing buttons, and just a little crazy." Understandable, considering his razor-sharp power pop had become as synonymous with the genre as the estimable likes of Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, and The Posies over the course of Telekinesis' first three albums, and this was the first time he's recorded without a producer.
The impetus for the album was one of both creative wanderlust and economic realities. The Seattle-based Lerner had moved into a new house with his wife and decided to fashion a makeshift studio in his basement, replete with a wide array of vintage synths and generally inorganic instrumentation in diametric opposition to his previous predilection for jangly guitars and conventional drum kits. He was also discomfited without the helping hand of previous producers Jim Eno (Spoon) and Chris Walla (ex-Death Cab for Cutie).
"That's when I started freaking out, and being like, 'Wow, it's not gonna be as easy as I thought.' Above making it sound really good and steering the ship in the right direction, both Jim and Chris were really good cheerleaders," Lerner explains. "If I was feeling weird about something, they'd jump in and say, 'No, man, this is totally fine,' or say, 'No, man, you should do this again' or 'This isn't the right part.' It made me realize that it was going to be difficult."
Yet he found a silver lining in this creative flux—namely, being able to record and learn at his leisure without being at the mercy of large studio costs. "Working in a professional studio is far more expensive than people realize," he says. "You don't have a ton of time to learn a new synthesizer when you're paying per day, it doesn't make financial sense. So this was the first time I could buy a synthesizer and learn to play it, which was way more exciting for me than picking up a guitar and writing more power pop songs."
Lerner found inspiration in unlikely places—discovering The Blue Nile, an obscure Scottish '80s synth act introduced to him by Merge head Mac McCaughan, and a Roland synthesizer he purchased, the same model Angelo Badalamenti used for the Twin Peaks score.
"The last analog synth Roland ever made," Lerner says excitedly. "It's huge and very beautiful. It has patches, and if you call them up, it's the exact sound he would use. It's like, 'Oh yeah, there's the intro to Twin Peaks,' which was really cool."
The album's recording was often arduous, but with the guidance of friends in Say Hi's Eric Elbogen and Death Cab drummer Jason McGerr, both of whom were brutally honest with Lerner when they felt as though he'd made a misstep, he plugged through and created an album he's obviously exceedingly happy with.
"I'm really proud of it. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, just making it work," he beams. "I was asking a piece of gear from last year to exist with a piece of gear from 1984. It's crazy that it can even happen."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2015 Issue. This is its debut online.]
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