Show Preview

Synths Up: Telekinesis' Music Begins on the Keys

In making 2013's Dormarion, Telekinesis frontman Michael Lerner says he was "bit by the synth bug."

Recording his band's third album in Austin, with Spoon's Jim Eno producing, Lerner for the first time got to experiment, just a tantalizing bit, with synthesizers. A drummer turned songwriter and guitarist, Lerner was transfixed with the possibilities in the once-futuristic and now-vintage realm of the synthesizer.

"I've never really had time to experiment with synths, but Jim's studio is so completely packed with everything you could ever want. And even though we only had two weeks, he pushed me to experiment more with that stuff. I just got way into it," Lerner says.

Setting his sights on collecting what he could, Lerner bought drum machines and synthesizers over the next two years, learning an entirely new process of music making along the way, as he assembled a home studio that would allow him the tinkering time he needed to produce an album on his own.

"It's a whole other world. I was able to take the time to go through and figure out how to make a noise and why it makes the noise it makes. It's similar to guitar players with pedals. It's kind of boutique-y and kind of fetish-y," Lerner says.

Once Lerner began immersing himself in his Seattle basement studio world of synthesizers — Moogs, Rolands, Korgs, and even an old Speak & Spell toy — he began writing music for what would become Ad Infinitum. Not only was the sound a departure from Telekinesis' signature power pop, but Lerner found he had to approach songwriting in an entirely new way.

"It was completely different and totally terrifying. Starting from the mind of a drummer and tuning up an electric guitar and playing some power chords and doing it that way was the model I'd followed for three records. I was really tired of that, and I don't think I could have done it again," he says. "I had to completely learn to write music on a keyboard. I barely touched a guitar. It was all written around the keyboard, piano, and that's something I'm not very good at. It's a very different way to write a song and it took twice as long."

Along the way, the 29-year-old Lerner discovered the origins of these machines and where they began showing up on recordings.

"I now can differentiate what specific reverb unit was used on an '80s record, and it's cool because that unit was introduced probably the same year that record was made," he says. "All this technology was happening and the coolest thing about technology being introduced to any artistic endeavor is people having to figure out how to use it. They make this incredible art, and it changes the sound of a whole decade of music, which is pretty rad."

For Ad Infinitum, Lerner's goal was to find a way of creating with the synthesizers that didn't result in a sound that's stuck in the past. Songs like "In a Future World" and "Edgewood" do exactly that, proving that adopting synthesizers hasn't dampened or reoriented the melodic gifts Lerner displayed on Telekinesis' prior albums.

"The trick is to try to make a record that doesn't sound like a throwback all the way. That's tough because you're utilizing stuff that completely takes you back to a time period," he says. "The thing I was a little worried about was whether people would want to listen to this record because it's so different. It sounds like the same band, but it also doesn't because it's such a big sonic shift. It's a lot to ask of people who are fans of your music, but it's awesome to see a lot of people on board with it and excited about it."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric is a freelance writer covering music, travel, science, and food and drink.
Contact: Eric Swedlund