Telekinesis in Kubota Garden

Michael Lerner walks us through a bit of an obsession.


Photo by Kyle Johnson

For michael lerner, Japan is a dream. You can hear it in the catchy pop the twenty-four-year-old writes and performs as Telekinesis. In fact, the two strongest songs on his impressive debut from last year, Telekinesis!, feature the island nation. In “Tokyo,” Lerner sings, over his own insistent drums and a fuzzy guitar riff, “I, I, I went to Tokyo/Only in my dreams/’Cause they’re all I know.” On the heartwarming acoustic strummer “I Saw Lightning,” he sings, “Take a walk/Take me in your hands/Hear the wind blowing/Pretend we’re in Japan.”

It’s no surprise that, when asked where he would like to hang out for this column, Lerner suggested we head to the Kubota Garden in South Seattle. When we meet at the entrance to the eighty-two-year-old Japanese garden on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in early December, Lerner is bundled up and wearing brown spectacles and a wide smile. The Garden is a recent find for him, he says, the destination for a recent birthday adventure courtesy of his girlfriend. Walking away from the stone garden at the entrance, we head down toward the most traditional part of the garden, where glacial stones frame a spring-fed pond. “I can’t believe this place is free,” he says. “You have to pay for the Japanese garden at the Arboretum, and this one is so much nicer.”

As we make our way past the bamboo, birch and yew plants, the conversation turns to Japan and a messages Lerner received this morning from Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance, two members of the seminal indie rock band Superchunk of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and proprietors of Merge Records, the label that released that first Telekinesis record and has plans to release more. Superchunk is about to leave for a spate of shows in Japan. Lerner’s jealousy is evident, as is his appreciation.

“They said that they were bringing a bunch of Telekinesis records with them,” he says, beaming widely. “They’re going to try and drum up some support so I can go on tour there, maybe sometime soon. It’s like a dream come true.”

Lerner’s music does have overseas appeal, though the Atlantic has been the only ocean the songwriter has crossed thus far. It’s less than a year since the release of his debut, recorded by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, and Lerner has already toured the continental U.S. and, more recently, Europe, joined on this trip with fellow indie favorites the Thermals and the Rosebuds.

Standing on the red Heart Bridge that crosses over Mapes Creek, Lerner says he is eager to head back to Europe. Having recently played a final show with his touring band, the Seattle native plans to head to Berlin, where his European label Morr Music is located, in late January to record his follow-up. The songs are currently in the works, Lerner says, though he is concerned that he can’t seem to write a song that does not sound like Mötley Crüe, a newfound obsession of his.

Given Lerner’s penchant for undeniable hooks and a sympathetic delivery, a Telekinesis take on Crüe could spell success – maybe even in Japan, where audiences are being primed for Lerner’s music.

A week after Lerner and I part ways at the Kubota Garden, a clip is posted on YouTube from the first stop of Superchunk’s Japanese tour, at a Tokyo club called O – West. “I’m gonna try to play this song,” says McCaughan to yawps from the audience. After two bars of fuzzy staccato guitar strums, he begins singing, “I, I, I went to Tokyo/Only in my dreams/’Cause they’re all I know…” •