Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner on Phil Collins, Dave Grohl, and his other favorite singing drummers

Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner on Phil Collins, Dave Grohl, and his other favorite singing drummers

In I Made You A Mixtapewe ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.

The mixer: As Telekinesis, Michael Lerner crafts perfect little pop songs. He does it all by himself, too, playing every single instrument on his records, including the brand-new Dormarion. On tour, it’s another story: Lerner plugs away as both the drummer and the vocalist while accompanied by a guitarist, bassist, and keyboard player. Considering Lerner’s extensive experience as someone who simultaneously belts choruses and keeps time, it seemed appropriate to hit him up for some of his favorite tracks featuring singing drummers, everything Phil Collins ever did included.

Phil Collins, “In The Air Tonight” (1981)
Michael Lerner: This one’s pretty straightforward. The thing that really gets me about that song is, when I watch him play it live, he wears a headset microphone. That’s his thing.

The A.V. Club: There’s this video where he just ominously walks around for the first three minutes.

ML: I feel like it’s more like seven, eight minutes. They extend the song like crazy. 

That song has one of the quintessential drum fills, I think. It’s one of the most recognizable drum fills, which is pretty remarkable for a drummer to have a drum fill that everyone in the world probably knows. 

I feel like now that Mr. Phil Collins is retired I sort of have to fly the flag of being a drummer a little bit higher.

AVC: Are you going to start playing that drum fill all the time at your shows?

ML: Yeah, I’m just playing that drum fill all the time. All the time. Have you seen that Cadbury commercial?

AVC: The one with the gorilla?

ML: Oh my God, I love that so much. I was living in Liverpool when that commercial came out and because it’s a British commercial for Cadbury, it was on TV all the time. I loved it. It was awesome.

AVC: How do you think Phil Collins is technically as a drummer? Do you think he gets the respect he deserves? 

ML: He definitely gets the respect in a really small community of people. He pigeonholed himself into this genre of music that makes people cringe a lot, which is unfortunate because he is just a really good drummer. All that Genesis stuff is crazy. It’s crazy. He’s totally skilled. It’s scary, because he’s good at everything. He’s an excellent drummer, but he’s also an excellent singer. He’s sort of like a Dave Grohl figure to me, because Dave Grohl is a crazy-good drummer, but he’s also a crazy-good singer and frontman and performer. And that’s definitely something I struggle with for sure, trying to think of myself as a person who is a lead singer rather than just a drummer. Those are two people for me who have really bridged that gap.

AVC: It seems like singing and drumming simultaneously would be hard enough. 

ML: Oh, it sucks.

AVC: If it sucks, why did you decide to be a singing drummer?

ML: It was literally the only thing I could do. For the first record, I totally faked my way through it. I could do the guitar and bass and all that stuff if I was sitting down and really focused on it, but then when it came time to tour, it was like, “Oh my God, how are we going to do that?” I can’t play guitar and sing. So the only other option for me was to try and play drums and sing. 

I remember the first week of trying to rehearse for our first show. It was bullshit. It sucked. I felt like I was pretty good at the drums, but then when I was trying to do this it was like, “Oh my God, I’m terrible at the drums.” It was so bad. I was so bummed. It took a week of trying to figure it out. It was also really hard because the band was getting together for the first time, so everyone was trying to figure it out. 

So it was a trainwreck, but after the first week it really started to come together and I was like, “Oh, this is kind of fun.” We had to work a bunch on configuring the stage setup. At first it was like, “Okay, I’m just going to be in the back, like where the drummer usually is,” but that didn’t work at all. When we put the drums up at the front of the stage, that was kind of a eureka moment, and it actually felt like, “Okay, I’m the lead singer of the band, and I’m also sitting down.” 

The Band, “Up On Cripple Creek” (1969)
AVC: The late, great Levon Helm.

ML: The thing that really blows my mind about the footage of him performing is that they probably did not have monitors, which is crazy. Now you can use in-ear monitors and all these crazy powerful wedges and high-tech stuff where you can actually hear yourself sing. He’s using this microphone, and I can’t spot any monitor. Even if he had one, I don’t think that it would work, because it would feedback like crazy with the microphone that he’s using.  He sings flawlessly, though, and I really don’t understand how he does that. He might have been an alien of some kind, because it doesn’t seem possible. 

It’s really weird to think about when we play a show. I’m always like, “I need more of this in my monitor.” I feel like I’m kind of a pain to the monitoring engineer, but when I start to get down a rabbit hole of getting way too much stuff in the monitor to where I can’t hear anything anymore, I always think of someone like Levon Helm and how he probably didn’t have anything in his monitor and he just sang his ass off.

AVC: Maybe he just had the confidence to do it. As in, he knew how his voice felt when it was right, and so he could go by that.

ML: If you don’t have a monitor, you don’t have another option. So you just sing; you don’t have to think about what’s in your monitor or what’s not in your monitor. 

Sometimes that can be a real crutch, I think. I can’t remember what show it was, maybe Sasquatch, but we were watching some band from the side stage and it seemed like every two seconds they would go over to the monitoring engineer and be like, “Turn us down, turn us up, turn it down, blah, blah, blah.” It was actually distracting for me to watch the show because it can’t actually matter that much. 

Queen used to do “Bohemian Rhapsody” with that crazy interlude on a tape machine, and they didn’t have crazy monitors. It’s possible to do it. 

AVC: But because it exists, people rely on it. 

ML: There’s so much more technology that a lot of times you start going backward a little bit because it’s just too much. With that live footage of Levon Helm playing that song, it’s just perfect. If he had an in-ear monitor or if he had a crazy microphone, it would not sound like that. It just wouldn’t.

Queen, “I’m In Love With My Car” (1975)
ML: This song is so cheesy.

AVC: Roger Taylor’s drum kit is just massive.

ML: He did have a big drum kit. I watched that “Classic Albums” documentary on this record. Have you seen that?

AVC: No, but I want to now.

ML: It was on Netflix. Anyway, it talks about him making this song. It cuts to footage of him and his crazy hot rod car. He’s a total car nut. It’s really endearing. It’s such a singing-drummer song because it’s like, “Oh, let the drummer sing about cars like you’d sing about a woman.” You can just hear the people in the studio being like, “All right. Let him have his fun.”

AVC: All of Ringo Starr’s songs are also kind of dumb.

ML: It’s totally like Ringo. Actually, Roger Taylor was probably the unsung hero of Queen as far as vocals are concerned, because he was the guy who did all of those high vocal parts, like on that song “’39.” He has such an amazing voice and the band harmonizes so well together, but it’s pretty rare that the drummer would have that range. It’s not normal.

Foo Fighters, “My Hero” (1998)
ML: Dave Grohl played all the drums on that record [The Colour And The Shape].

AVC: Isn’t the story that some other guy actually recorded all the drum tracks, and then Grohl just re-did almost all of them himself and only told the guy when it was too late?

ML: It’s a really bad story. William Goldsmith played drums on that entire record, but Dave Grohl was either living in L.A. or finishing the record in L.A., and William Goldsmith still lives in Seattle. I guess the story is that he called Dave Grohl and was like, “Hey, man. Can I come listen to the record?” And Grohl was like, “Yeah, actually I just re-recorded all of your drum parts.” I think still to this day, they don’t really talk to each other. Goldsmith is really pissed off about it.

I can see that being a real dickish move, but at the same time, I think that The Colour And The Shape is one of my favorite records ever made. I think it’s amazing, and I also think that it wouldn’t have been the same record if William Goldsmith was playing drums on it. I think it probably would have sounded a lot different.

AVC: According to Wikipedia, which is only sometimes true, he is still on two of the tracks. 

ML: That’s definitely possible. That documentary about the Foo Fighters is really good. It’s about the beginning of that band and it talks about this record. And they interview William Goldsmith, and he’s pissed. He’s still pissed to this day. And Dave Grohl is obviously really sad about it. 

I’ve kind of been in that situation a bit myself, with having people play in my band and then for whatever reason—even though I’m not as good of a guitar or bass player as people that have played in my band live—I feel like I have to do all the parts or at some point I’m like, “Even though I’m worse than you at this instrument, it’s what I hear in my head.” I think as a person who makes songs where you play all the instruments yourself and write everything, you have this idea in your head. And it’s hard to convey that to people sometimes. So I can kind of relate to that in a weird way. 

I don’t know if the way that he handled it was the right way. I don’t think I would like to get a phone call that’s like, “By the way, I just replaced everything you did but…”

AVC: “… it’s my band, so screw you.”

ML: Exactly. I love Dave Grohl, but he kind of strikes me as a super big egomaniac, which you have to be, probably. But I don’t know if that was the right way to handle the friendship.

AVC: Have you met Dave Grohl?

ML: No. I’ve never met him.

AVC: Would you want to?

ML: Yeah, absolutely. That first Foo Fighters record was like, a crazy lo-fi record and I love it. Those first two records I think are really, really, really good. I would love to meet him for that reason alone, just to pick his brain about those two records. 

I’m not a big fan of the more recent stuff they’ve done. There’s something about the way you watch a rock ’n’ roll band at a huge arena, like Wembley Stadium, and Grohl has the wireless guitar and he just runs up the corridor by himself with the guitar. It’s a little too much mixing U2 with Foo Fighters for me, and I can’t really get behind that for some reason.

AVC: This is kind of a philosophical question, but it addresses what kind of band you think you want to have. Do you think if Nirvana was still around, they’d be playing these big stadium shows, or do you think they’d be doing Sonic Youth-style intimate experiences? How do you find that balance between artistry and success?

ML: I don’t know. For me, Radiohead does that. Every single time I see Radiohead, I feel like even though it’s in a giant arena, I still love watching Thom Yorke dance around like a crazy guy. I don’t feel like it has that “we think we’re the coolest band ever” vibe, even though, to me, they are the coolest band ever. 

If you look up footage of the Foo Fighters playing at Wembley, I think they sold out three nights in a row or something. It was like it had never happened before, and they made a DVD of it. They have one of those stages that has a huge walkway that leads way out into the audience and Dave Grohl literally just runs up to the end of it and then does a thing where he looks out into the crowd and wipes his hair and it’s just like… I don’t know. 

To answer your question, I don’t know. I mean, obviously his bandmate, Mr. Kurt Cobain, couldn’t handle it. It seems like it’s just something that can be in your system. Being involved in the music industry, if you have any ego to begin with, then it’s a very slippery slope, because you’re constantly getting adoration. It’s a really dangerous thing if you already have that gene in your DNA. I kind of feel like that is happening with Dave Grohl, and that would be partially why I wouldn’t want to meet him. I wouldn’t want to be disappointed about that.

The Eagles, “Hotel California” (1976)
ML: This is a controversial one. I actually love this song a lot, and I also hate it a lot. 

There’s really not much to be said about it. Don Henley wrote one of the biggest songs ever and he’s a drummer, and that’s a pretty big accomplishment if you want my opinion. It’s also one of the craziest songs I’ve ever heard and probably will ever hear, and I probably will hear it a lot more because I go shopping at stores. It’s one of those crazy things where I don’t know why, but that song really did something. And it’s written by a drummer. To me, that’s pretty cool. He’s totally a headset-mic kind of guy, too.

The Beatles, “Octopus’ Garden” (1969)
AVC: We talked about Ringo earlier, and this is a good song, but it’s not super-challenging. People play it for their kids. It’s a bit of a throwaway.

ML: Such a big part of a band is its image, and The Beatles’ image was that Ringo was the crazy little funny guy, so they gave him those songs. 

He had a good voice. He definitely sang and played the drums live really well. Again, I don’t think they had monitors. He still played really well, especially when there were that many people screaming. He couldn’t have heard anything. I’m always so amazed at how good that stuff sounds when you watch footage from that time.

AVC: Some people don’t think Ringo’s a great drummer. He has a lot of detractors.

ML: That is one of my biggest pet peeves ever, when someone is like, “He was such a bad drummer. Why would anyone think he’s a good drummer?” It’s total bullshit to say that. What does “good” mean? It’s such a subjective term. Good can be playing some crazy solo on 48 drums, but good is also playing absolutely perfectly for the band that you’re in, and that is what Ringo did. There could never have been any other drummer for that band, and that goes for a lot of bands. But was he technically a really good drummer? Absolutely not. Like, no way. There were way better drummers technically than him, even at that time, but it’s something that you can’t teach people, how to play a song or how to be creative, or how to do something as a mistake, even. I don’t think anyone could have played the drum part on “Come Together” like Ringo. 

I almost feel like Paul McCartney was probably a technically better drummer in a weird way. He is such a crazy gifted person, but he didn’t have the same feel as Ringo. I don’t think anyone really did.

AVC: You can make the same argument about Meg White. She’s not a good drummer, per se, but she’s good for The White Stripes.

ML: Absolutely perfect for them. It’s the same with Patrick Carney from The Black Keys. He’s not a talented, crazy-gifted drummer guy. He’s sloppy and bluesy and awesome and perfect for Dan Auerbach. Those two are absolutely perfect together. 

It’s the same thing with The White Stripes. I love those White Stripes records, and then I listen to the new Jack White record and it really sounds like a different thing because his band is so much better. Those songs are a snapshot of Meg White and Jack White together, and if anyone else had played drums for them, it would have had different results. 

She’s not a good drummer at all, not at all. I don’t think I’m technically a good drummer either, but I like playing songs, and I think that is sometimes more important than sitting in your room for 10 hours playing rudiments and learning drum fills and stuff like that. To me, playing drums is all about playing in a band. You’re not trying to be in the spotlight as a drummer. You’re trying to facilitate a song, and that’s what all great drummers for me have done.

No Age, “Fever Dreaming” (2010)
ML: We were playing at Sasquatch three years ago, and Dean Spunt from No Age was in the crowd. And I remember being really nervous because I was like, “Oh my God, it’s another singing drummer and he’s really, really good.” I think I said something onstage, and he walked away. That was a scary moment.

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