Michael Benjamin Learner is the multi-instrumental mastermind behind Telekinesis, an indie rock band from Seattle coming to Bottom of the Hill on April 24.
The band recently released its third album Domarion on Merge Records. We caught up with Learner to his musical roots in Seattle, getting a diploma from Paul McCartney and what he likes most about San Francisco.
You left home when you were 19 years old to study music. How did you make that decision and what did your Mom think?
I was a musician at that time, playing drums in lots of bands. I started playing in bars when I was 14 years old. My parents were super supportive, more supportive than most. I had an opportunity to try out for a woman named Brandi Carlile on Formula Records to play drums for her. At the last minute they decided not to take me, which ended up being a good thing even though it was a bummer at the time.
So I sent an application to the Liverpool Institution on performing Arts, sort of on a whim. That school is funded by Paul McCartney and a bunch of other big people in music. I ended up getting accepted for that, so I decided to flee the country, go to the UK and to study music for one year. The short answer is that my parents were totally excited, but I think they missed me a lot. It ended up being an incredible experience. I don’t think I would be here talking to you today if I hadn’t done that.
Sir Paul McCartney (performing at Outside Lands) handed you a recording and engineering diploma in Liverpool. That must be a lifetime highlight?
Yeah! It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking walks of my life. I was completely terrified, but it was amazing. He hands everyone their diploma after every year, which is pretty cool of him.
How has your dad influenced you and is he currently involved in your career?
My Dad was a DJ here in Seattle for 30 years on the morning show and he has way more rock ‘n’ roll stories than anyone I’ve met in my life. I don’t think anything I could do would surprise him at this point. I don’t take drugs, I drink very little and I’m pretty straight and narrow. Maybe that has to do with hearing crappy stories from his time in the radio industry—and it was Seattle, which was full of drugs and people who didn’t make it. Growing up hearing those stories made me want to not go down that path.
You suffered a mysterious ailment that left you temporarily deaf in one ear. You also crashed your touring van. Those two events shook you up pretty good?
I still don’t really know what’s going on with my ear. It’s some fluid in my ear that makes me feel off-balance. It’s not fun.
Are you feeling O.K. now?
I have really good days and bad days. I’ve learned to try and accept the fact that nobody knows what’s going on. I’ve spent a lot of money on it and I can’t do anything about it. Nobody knows what’s going on, so I accept that I have good days, good weeks, months, then bad ones. Touring sometimes is not a great thing for me because of it. It can be a stressful experience.
How did you decide on North Carolina’s Merge Records?
I think that it stems from working at Sonic Boom Records in Seattle. We would send us advances for records. Every week labels would send you records so you can play stuff in the store and get people excited about it. Most if the bands I didn’t even know. Every time they sent us a Merge record, whether it was Arcade Fire, Destroyer, Caribou…I was always like: holy shit this is great! When it came time to pick a record label, I thought THAT’s the label I know I want to be on. For whatever reason, it happened. I think it’s the best label in the world I love that label.
Seattle has a rich history of indie music. Do you have a favorite local band that you would recommend to fans of your music?
We just played just with a band a couple night ago called Tomten. They were really good. I like them.
What’s different about your third album, Domarion, compared to the previous two records?
I think a lot of the songs on this record are very different than each other, which was sort of intentional. A Lot of reviewers have called me out for that as a negative thing, which I respect but I wish I could talk to them about why it’s this way.
The majority of the people, I would say 98 percent of people listen to your record on Spotify or iTunes and they don’t listen to the record front to back. I tried to write a collection of songs the best I could that don’t sound like anything that I’ve done in the past. There are some songs that are power poppy, which is kind of like my wheelhouse. I tried to make a collection of songs that people would enjoy.
A good portion of your songs are about girls. Do you have a girlfriend?
I do, I have a fiancé. We’re getting married this fall. I met Amy at the Ace Hotel in Seattle. She used to work there and it was one of those love at first site type situations. A lot of songs on this record are about our relationship. “Symphony” is definitely all about us getting married. We’re getting married at a place called Windy Island out here. It’s really pretty, on a farm.
Do you have a favorite venue or live performance?
Gallery Ballroom in New York, I absolutely love that place. For whatever reason, they booked us there again for this tour. I think it’s really good sounding venue. It has really good acoustics, the way everyone treats you at the venue, the house sound person there is amazing (his name’s Kenny, he’s the best), everyone that works there, the production people Bowery Events is the best. They make it an easy experience.
Sometimes touring is difficult. A lot of people who work at venues hate their life. And to be fair they have to deal with shitty bands all day. There are a lot of them. We try really hard not to be them. There are lots of bands that aren’t cool to hang out with.
What do you enjoy most about visiting San Francisco?
We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge once. It was equally exciting and terrifying, especially for one with balance issues. I watched that documentary about the bridge before I walked it. I was freaking out that someone would push me over. The railings aren’t very tall near the middle.
I love being in the Mission, I love all the food and I love going to the cable car museum.